By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Bret Stephens wants you to misunderstand an easily misunderstood report on masking

A pre-vaccine selfie in the Middlesex Fells, January 2021.

None of us will forget those early, terrifying months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when there were no vaccines. No one knew what to do, so we all masked up. I was so careful that if I was hiking in the woods and saw someone approaching, I’d quickly put on my bandana and hope they’d do the same. What did we know? I mean, we had friends who had their groceries delivered to their garage and wouldn’t touch them for several days.

These days, the fear has subsided for those of us who are healthy and fully vaxxed. People are still dying unnecessarily of COVID, but mask mandates are pretty much behind us. I still wear a mask on public transportation but nowhere else.

So I read with great interest recently that a new report shows mask mandates did not work. Yasmin Tayag wrote about it in The Atlantic on Feb. 13. The report — “a rigorous assessment of 78 studies” — showed that there was no difference in the COVID rate when the general population wore masks, whether they were cloth or high-grade N95s.

Yet what the report actually found was complicated and easily misunderstood and/or mis-explained by the media. The paper wasn’t saying that masking doesn’t work — it was saying that mandates don’t work at the community level. In other words, if you are wearing a high-quality mask and making sure that it fits properly, you are doing a decent job of protecting yourself from others. It’s just that too many people weren’t masking, or weren’t wearing a proper mask, for it to make much difference at the population level. Tayag wrote:

The population-level detail is important: It indicates uncertainty about whether requiring everyone to wear a mask makes a difference in viral spread. This is different from the impact of individual masking, which has been better researched. Doctors, after all, routinely mask when they’re around sick patients and do not seem to be infected more often than anyone else. “We have fairly decent evidence that masks can protect the wearer,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Brown University, told me. “Where I think it sort of falls apart is relating that to the population level.”

Naturally, such nuances get obliterated by bad-faith commentators — like Bret Stephens of The New York Times, who writes today that the study shows masking doesn’t work, period, and that those who pushed for mandates should apologize. Stephens does include a to-be-sure paragraph acknowledging that individual mask-wearing may make sense, but he blows right past it, writing:

Those skeptics who were furiously mocked as cranks and occasionally censored as “misinformers” for opposing mandates were right. The mainstream experts and pundits who supported mandates were wrong. In a better world, it would behoove the latter group to acknowledge their error, along with its considerable physical, psychological, pedagogical and political costs.

No. The “misinformers” claimed that masking itself didn’t work, and that we were killing ourselves by breathing our own carbon dioxide. Stephens knows this, I assume, but he’s more than happy to let us confuse mandates-don’t-work with masking-doesn’t-work, and to elide the reality that universal masking probably would have worked if everyone wore high-quality masks over their mouths and noses rather than their chins.

I’ve never been all-in on masking. As I said, I continue to mask up on public transportation, but nowhere else. And I always enjoy seeing a cyclist wearing a mask but not a helmet, which is truly a cosmically hilarious misunderstanding of risk. But there is good reason to think that if you wear a proper mask properly that you’ll reduce your chances of getting COVID.

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  1. Paul Hutch

    Dr. Novella covered this study well at the Science-Based medicine blog.

    His conclusion, “This recent Cochrane review is very limited in scope and is highly problematic in its methods. The most we can conclude from it is that we need better and more relevant controlled trials of mask wearing to more precisely determine its effect on the spread of COVID. But it does not show that mask wearing does not work or that mask policies don’t work.”

  2. Ilex

    Why are conservatives so eager to kill each other off? Anti-vax, anti-mask. Come the next respiratory pandemic, which may well be something deadlier than Covid (see the mortality of MERS and SARS, which we’re all lucky were quickly contained), these folks are going to be at terrible risk. As will anyone who recalls this study and decides not to mask-up early.

    I wish mask wearing had been presented from the get-go as a measure to protect oneself. Instead, it was described as a way to protect other people, as if we were to think of ourselves as contaminated. I think that offended a lot of people, and that’s what a lot the anti-masking fuss is really about.

    I believe masks work for individual protection — I ride the T every day, and I’ve barely had a sniffle in three years now. An anecdote does not equal data, but I find my personal experience convincing, since I used to get respiratory illnesses pretty regularly.

    Since the mask mandates were lifted, I’ve also masked at my office the few times I haven’t felt entirely well, just in case. Pre-pandemic, I used to find myself with mild respiratory illnesses that would be much worse in people who caught them from me, and I’m very happy to be able to protect others from that.

    It is a real shame that this study will probably undermine any future masking recommendations when the world faces another health challenge.

    • Steven

      Yes, all science be dammed because you “felt” safer with your little anxiety blanket over your face.

  3. James Glucksman

    I largely agree with the Bret Stephens Op-Ed. Politicians have an insatiable urge to “do something” about a problem even if it’s just a gesture and not a solution.

    • There are two core issues here. Some are more concerned with government “intrusion” and others are focused on the medical facts. As a doctor of veterinary medicine, I’m more interested on the data about the disease. The government’s suggestions are way down on my list.

  4. Patricia Titus

    Because I’m in my eighties I wore a mask whenever I was likely to be exposed
    throughout the Covid exposure period. It was the longest time I’ve ever
    gone without having any colds or flu in my life.

  5. Jesse Truitall

    Remember when we put bandanas on our faces to stop a respiratory virus? How silly we were back then! Remember the anger we exuded towards those who rejected the idea? How we accused them of being killers?
    Staying home and away from crowds is the way to stay healthy when viruses are common. The elderly have always known this. A piece of cloth over one’s face provides a false illusion of safety which is dangerous, indeed.

    I sometimes wonder if this fight over masking was promoted externally, to help along the divisiveness and decay of our country. Certainly masking was never important enough to bring so much hatred into our everyday lives.

    • Andi

      Uh sorry, my $3 Hello Kitty cloth mask from a gas station absolutely stops respiratory viruses. It transcends viral research which prior to about April of 2020 told us that said masks were useless. I know it because I feel it. I feel safer with this piece of cloth over my face and therefore anyone who doesn’t wear a piece of cloth is a racist.

  6. Joe

    Hey, your comfortable with the illusion of safety. ? Go with that fantasy, as well as the 6ft distancing..
    The mask mandates were a cruel joke, especially with children.

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