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In the midst of renewed calls for universal masking in the name of Covid-19, can we have a reasoned, data-oriented discussion of how well universal masking prevents Covid deaths? Universal masking harms people and harms society. To justify such harms, I expect strong evidentiary support for the theory that universal masking prevents a significant number of Covid deaths.
Universal masking harms people. Many mask wearers experience anxiety, increased blood pressure, difficulties breathing. Universal masking cuts off much if not most interpersonal communication for many people, and interferes with the ability of children to learn and to develop social skills.
Universal masking harms society (American perspective; may be different in other cultures). Mask wearing fosters suspicion, distrust, and individual isolation. Masking discourages communication and cooperation. I believe that, along with stay-at-home orders, universal masking contributed to the widespread violence we saw in 2020.
I hear assertions that the intent of universal masking is to reduce Covid deaths. I seem to have missed the data (not just the theories and intentions) that universal masking reduces Covid deaths.
I am not looking here for philosophical arguments about liberty. Nor for arguments involving vaccinations. Many of the calls for universal masking do not distinguish on the basis of vaccination. None of the Covid vaccines has been fully tested, so it is entirely rational for individuals to decide that the risks (known and unknown) of receiving a vaccine outweigh the risks (mostly known) of contracting Covid itself. Finally, the discussion should focus on Covid deaths (or serious illness or hospitalization). “Spread of Covid” and “Covid cases” confuses the discussion by including the vast majority of people who get Covid and have no or mild symptoms.
Studies that show Covid deaths in 2020 were not materially different between places with mask requirements and places without mask requirements (or between times before and after mask requirements) are of little to no help. In 2020 the rates of mask-wearing were high regardless of requirements, so the differences in actual mask-wearing were not all that large. Are there studies that use actual mask-wearing rates, as opposed to mandates?
I’m skeptical of extrapolating evidence from mask-wearing by medical personnel in medical facilities to mask-wearing by the general public in general environments. Medical personnel are trained in protocols for wearing and handling masks, and wear them in facilities designed and equipped with systems for limiting the spread of disease. We have seen that the general public does not follow medical mask protocols. The places frequented by the general public do not have the disease-limiting facilities and systems that medical facilities have.
Laboratory experiments showing that mask material captures viruses when virus-laden air is blown at the mask material are also of limited value. There are major differences between the laboratory conditions and how people use masks in general environments, so the correlation between the laboratory experiment and the “real world” is unclear.
“Intuitively obvious” seems to carry a lot of weight in the masking debate. We heard that a lot in the arguments about wearing two or more masks. The proponents said “of course” if one mask was good, two were better. But I never saw them present much evidence for that proposition. Even with respect to single masks, many of the arguments for masking just assume that putting cloth or paper over a person’s face will reduce the spread of the virus, and thus deaths. There must be data somewhere supporting that theory.
As you can tell, I am not convinced that universal masking prevents enough Covid deaths to justify the individual and societal harms universal masking imposes. But, I like to think that I could be persuaded.Published in