Fact Check: Video Claiming 'Multiple Scientific Studies' Show Masks Don't Work Uses Old Data, Ignores Current Science On COVID-19

Hoax Alert

  • by: Eric Ferkenhoff
Fact Check: Video Claiming 'Multiple Scientific Studies' Show Masks Don't Work Uses Old Data, Ignores Current Science On COVID-19 Reality Check

Does current science say that face masks don't work to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus that leads to COVID-19? No, this is not true. First, a video making the claim that masks -- from N95 to cloth ones -- don't work relies on dated studies. Second, while much debate does exist over face coverings reducing the spread of the virus, most scientists and medical officials -- including the U.S. surgeon general on July 20, 2020 -- say they are necessary to arrest the pandemic.

The claim can be found in a video (archived here) published by the RT online network on July 15, 2020, titled "Why Face Masks Don't Work, According To Science," which opened:

So much debate over whether or not we should be wearing masks in order to fight COVlD but multiple scientific studies over the past decade have already settled this question. Not only do medical masks not prevent the spread of the virus, but a 1995 study proves that wearing a cloth mask can put you at greater risk for infection.

Click below to watch the video on YouTube:

The 12:36-minute video from Truth In Media W/ Ben Swann was posted by the RT (formerly Russia Today) online network, which claims over 10 billion viewers on YouTube and has been flagged by YouTube as partially or fully funded by Russia.

The video actually conflicts with the quickly developing science surrounding a virus and disease that has killed more than 140,000 people in the U.S. and nearly 607,000 worldwide as of July 20. The video, for example, relies on studies "done over the past decade -- one in 2009, 2010, 2012, 2016, 2017, 2019, and yes, even this year in 2020." All of these were done prior to the spread of the current pandemic, and all focused in influenza or other viruses or diseases -- not the novel coronavirus. Or it cites studies that deal exclusively with healthcare workers using cloth versus surgical masks, not regular people out in public during a pandemic.

The video was also reposted by InfoWars and on Swann's Facebook page, among other places.

Simply put, Swann focuses on a few studies that indicate face masks are not only unnecessary but dangerous to wear during an outbreak. He neglects volumes of research suggesting just the opposite. And one study from 2015 that Swann cites as evidence against masks was updated March 30 to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Consider the conclusions of this study from April 10, 2020, about a month after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic:

Reducing disease spread requires two things: first, limit contacts of infected individuals via physical distancing and contact tracing with appropriate quarantine, and second, reduce the transmission probability per contact by wearing masks in public, among other measures. The preponderance of evidence indicates that mask wearing reduces the transmissibility per contact by reducing transmission of infected droplets in both laboratory and clinical contexts. Public mask wearing is most effective at stopping spread of the virus when compliance is high. The decreased transmissibility could substantially reduce the death toll and economic impact while the cost of the intervention is low. Thus we recommend the adoption of public cloth mask wearing, as an effective form of source control, in conjunction with existing hygiene, distancing, and contact tracing strategies. We recommend that public officials and governments strongly encourage the use of widespread face masks in public, including the use of appropriate regulation."

Nor did Swann's video take this study into account, which is summarized as finding:

We identified seasonal human coronaviruses, influenza viruses and rhinoviruses in exhaled breath and coughs of children and adults with acute respiratory illness. Surgical face masks significantly reduced detection of influenza virus RNA in respiratory droplets and coronavirus RNA in aerosols, with a trend toward reduced detection of coronavirus RNA in respiratory droplets. Our results indicate that surgical face masks could prevent transmission of human coronaviruses and influenza viruses from symptomatic individuals."

Swann takes particular aim at Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's order that businesses require masks -- or risk fines or worse, effectively calling Whitmer's order nonsense. But, on June 16, Health Affairs published this in its study abstract about states that have and have not required face masks:

State policies mandating public or community use of face masks or covers in mitigating novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spread are hotly contested. This study provides evidence from a natural experiment on effects of state government mandates in the US for face mask use in public issued by 15 states plus DC between April 8 and May 15...Estimates suggest as many as 230,000-450,000 COVID-19 cases possibly averted By May 22, 2020 by these mandates. The findings suggest that requiring face mask use in public might help in mitigating COVID-19 spread.

Another study updated June 15, 2020, found similar results when comparing mortality rates in countries that did or did not require lockdowns, face masks and other measures:

Societal norms and government policies supporting the wearing of masks by the public, as well as international travel controls, are independently associated with lower per-capita mortality from COVID-19."

Two days after Swann's report, the Police Tube channel ("Youtube account for crazy videos") ran a rebuttal on YouTube, saying:

Ben Swann does not understand how face masks work. He misreads RCT [Randomized Controlled Trial] studies and made a video saying that masks dont work. The study actually says that medical masks and N95 masks work equally as well at blocking viruses. BOTH blocked the virus 99% of the time."

Here is that video:

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, urged universal adoption of mask-wearing to help reverse the growing number of cases and deaths attributed to the virus and the disease it causes. A July 14, 2020, statement from the CDC says:

Americans are increasingly adopting the use of cloth face masks to slow the spread of COVID-19, and the latest science may convince even more to do so.

In an editorial published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), CDC reviewed the latest science and affirms that cloth face coverings are a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19 that could reduce the spread of the disease, particularly when used universally within communities. There is increasing evidence that cloth face coverings help prevent people who have COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others.

"We are not defenseless against COVID-19," said CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield. "Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus - particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities."

And just on July 20, 2020, Surgeon General Jerome Adams pleaded with "Fox & Friends" viewers to wear a mask, stressing that doing so would help in reversing course on the pandemic and was not an attempt to infringe on people's individual rights -- the crux of the debate being fought in American right now (He also acknowledges missteps along the way in battling COVID-19, including mixed messages on masks):

I'm pleading with your viewers. I'm begiing you. Please understand that we are not trying to take away your freedoms when we say, 'Wear a face covering.'"

Here is video on YouTube of Adams making a public plea posted by The Hill soon after the "Fox & Friends" appearance:

Even President Trump, who had refused to wear a mask, said July 20 in a tweet that it was "patriotic" to wear one:

Swann wraps up the video with these two rhetorical questions:

Is wearing a face mask really about protecting the public, or does it become about submission of the public? Are we being forced to submit merely because politicians want us to?"

According to the most recent science, the answer is no.

Lead Stories has previously debunked similar claims that masks don't work. Here are some examples:

Fact Check: 'OSHA Certified' Troll's Analysis Does NOT Burst Face Mask Wearer's 'Google Doctor Degree' -- Face Masks Do Help Slow COVID-19 Spread

Fact Check: The CDC Did NOT Say That Cloth Masks 'Do Not Filter Anything' And Wearing One 'Risks Your Health'

Fact Check: Dr. Kelly Victory's 'COVID Facts' Video Includes Many Claims That Are NOT Facts

Fact Check: The CDC DOES Recommend Buying And Using Face Masks, Even If You Are Healthy

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Lead Stories is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.


  Eric Ferkenhoff

Managing Editor Eric Ferkenhoff has been a reporter, editor and professor for 27 years, working chiefly out of the Midwest and now the South. Focusing on the criminal and juvenile justice systems, education and politics, Ferkenhoff has won several journalistic and academic awards and helped start a fact-checking project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he continues to teach advanced reporting. Ferkenhoff also writes and edits for the juvenile justice site JJIE.org.

 

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