Family & Community

Study undercuts calls for mask mandates

November 19, 2020

Ray Carter

Even as calls continue for statewide mask mandates in Oklahoma schools and most public places, a comprehensive new study indicates that masks provide little or no protection from COVID-19.

The study, published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, reviewed data taken in April and May in Denmark from 3,030 participants who were randomly assigned to wear face masks and another 2,994 who did not wear face masks. Just over 80 percent of the participants completed the study.

While study participants who wore masks used “high-quality surgical masks” with a filtration rate of 98 percent, the difference in infection rates between the two groups was deemed statistically insignificant. There were 42 individuals (1.8 percent) who wore masks who contracted COVID-19 and 53 individuals (2.1 percent) who did not wear masks and contracted COVID-19.

“Our results suggest that the recommendation to wear a surgical mask when outside the home among others did not reduce, at conventional levels of statistical significance, the incidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection in mask wearers in a setting where social distancing and other public health measures were in effect, mask recommendations were not among those measures, and community use of masks was uncommon,” the study’s authors note.

The report’s findings come as various groups continue to demand state imposition of mask mandates in Oklahoma, particularly in schools.

Earlier this month, Oklahoma Education Association president Alicia Priest called on the State Board of Education to require masks in schools during in-person learning.

“We know masks slow the spread of COVID-19,” Priest said.

Yet an August survey conducted by the Oklahoma State Department of Education found 346 school districts, or 65 percent, had some form of mandatory mask policy at that time, and those schools represented an even larger share of the total student population. Recent reports indicate close to 80 percent of schools now have mask mandates, and reports from schools without mask mandates indicate masks are nonetheless used, particularly by staff.

Polling by the Pew Research Center has also shown nearly all adults—85 percent—were wearing masks in the region that includes Oklahoma as far back as August.

The claim of mask advocates like Priest that masks “work” in combating COVID-19 have been undercut not only by the Danish study, but by local data.

According to the most recent state epidemiology and surveillance report, the per-capita rate of COVID-19 infection in areas of Oklahoma that have instituted mask mandates surged dramatically from Sept. 1 to Nov. 1, rising from 18 cases per 100,000 population to 32.2 cases per 100,000.

Some doctors have noted the types of masks worn by most people, and the practices employed by many who wear masks daily, do not align with the practices required to significantly impact viral spread and can even be counterproductive.

Gov. Kevin Stitt, during a Thursday press conference, said over 50 percent of Oklahoma is under a mask mandate because of orders issued at the city level. And he noted that COVID-19 cases have surged nationwide, including in places with strict mask mandates and other more severe measures in place.

“Minnesota, for example, they have 50 percent more cases—50 percent more cases—per capita than Oklahoma,” Stitt said. “And they have had a mandate in place for 121 days now. Illinois, they have 17 percent more cases per capita than we do. Chicago is totally shut down, no in-person dining, and that’s been going on since May 1.”

Schools, in particular, do not appear to be a source of spread. Schools across Oklahoma have reported few cases of COVID-19 among staff and students that have been traced to exposure at the school.

This holds true even at the college level.

On Nov. 9, Dale W. Bratzler, chief COVID officer for the University of Oklahoma, said, “When we have discussions with those in the OU community who have tested positive for COVID-19, we find that most of them got this infection off campus or from roommates who have tested positive. Indeed, we have not documented any transmission in our classrooms.”

Byron Schlomach, director of the 1889 Institute, a research organization, said the Danish study’s findings are not surprising and align with the observed experience of many citizens.

“Anybody with a modicum of mechanical knowledge and who can feel their eyelashes tickle every time they breathe out with a mask on knows that if anybody with COVID-19 is walking around with a mask, they’re readily sharing the virus,” Schlomach said. “The rest of us, despite wearing masks, obviously readily breathe it in. The vulnerable and paranoid should shave, if need be, and wear N95 respirators sealed to their faces if they must get out and about. Otherwise, leave the rest of us alone.”


NOTE: This story has been updated since publication to include comments from Gov. Kevin Stitt.