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.