Wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases has had almost no effect at the societal level, according to a new rigorous review of available research.
“Interestingly, 12 trials in the review, ten in the community and two among healthcare workers, found that wearing masks in the community probably makes little or no difference to the transmission of influenza-like illness or COVID-19,” writes Tom Jefferson, British epidemiologist and co-author of the new Cochrane Library report on masking trials. “Also, the review found that masks had no effect on laboratory-confirmed flu or SARS-CoV-2 results. Five other trials showed no difference between one type of mask versus another.”
This finding is significant given how comprehensive the Cochrane review was. Randomized control trials had hundreds of thousands of participants and made useful comparisons: people who were given masks — and, by self-report, actually wore them — versus people who weren’t. Other studies that have tried to find out the effectiveness of mask requirements have compared one municipality to another, without taking into account relevant differences between groups. This was true of the infamous school district masking study in Arizona; the findings were cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a reason for maintaining the mask mandate.
“Comparing Pima and Maricopa counties is a meaningless way to study masks — because people are fundamentally different — except for masking,” noted Vinay Prasad, an epidemiologist who opposed the COVID-19 mandates. “They have different vaccination rates and different levels of caution.”
Cochrane used randomized controlled trials (RCTs), which are reviewed the gold standard for review. And the results are undeniable: scale it down to the population level and the masks had a barely noticeable impact on COVID-19 cases.
“The pooled results of the RCTs did not show a clear reduction in respiratory viral infections with the use of medical/surgical masks,” the authors write. “There were no clear differences between the use of medical/surgical masks compared to N95/P2 respirators in healthcare workers when used in routine care to reduce respiratory viral infection.”
David Zweig, a writer who helped draw attention to the flaws in the Arizona study, noted that these negative findings reflect a basic reality: While individual mask wearers may benefit for a while if they are consistent, perfectly wear masks, it doesn’t add up to the overall experience. According to Zweig:
Even the most ardent supporters of masks, who want to wear them properly, fail to do so. And, as this study and others show, even when masks are required, they are either not worn properly or not at all by a significant number of people. these images from The New York Times the article comically shows that children are no exception to this problem. And neither are teachers – this study, published by the CDC, of a school outbreak sums up the problem pretty well: “a teacher read aloud to the class without a mask despite school requirements that he wear a mask while indoors.”
In short, UC Berkeley statistician Benjamin Recht, who co-authored a reanalysis of the Bangladesh RCT that refuted that trial’s findings, said, “At this point, I doubt any study will change anyone’s mind about masking. But one consistent finding of all randomized trials is that the population-level effect of this intervention is vanishingly small.”
The findings have yet to penetrate the mainstream media bubble: while flawed studies like the Arizona one have received rave reviews in the The New York Times and The Washington Post, so far the Cochrane review has not attracted the attention of these media. Nor did he get comment from the CDC — an agency that has routinely used less compelling evidence to recommend maintaining intrusive COVID-19 interventions like masking and lockdown orders.
Indeed, while mask mandates are no longer a typical part of American life, there are still enclaves that require masking. Some schools in the US have maintained or reinstated the mask requirement during flu season. In the capital, George Washington University continues to require masks in classrooms.
If following science means updating one’s prior condition when new evidence becomes available, then mask-requiring institutions should finally admit — three years after the pandemic — that endlessly imposing masks on people who don’t want them, especially children, is not a defensible strategy. As for any lingering government demands, let this be the final and long-overdue word: no more mandates.