Has no scientific study demonstrated masks protect people from COVID-19? No, that's not true: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides a list of 19 scientific publications its infectious disease experts rely on when recommending people wear masks (not face shields) in public to prevent spreading the virus, and a paper on the requirement that surgeons and nurses wear masks to reduce the odds they will spray, cough or breathe germs onto patients.
The claim appears in a website article (archived here) published by theologian and radio talk show host Bryan Fischer on the American Family Association website August 6, 2020, under the title 'Masks Do Not Work. Period.' It opened:
Mask mania has swept the United States, with some surveys admitting that perhaps 95% of Americans are wearing them, under the entirely illusory belief that the masks are doing them some good.
Unfortunately, no scientific study has demonstrated that masks do any good at all in terms of protecting people from COVID-19. Some mask wearers may feel a little better, because they may feel like they have some protection even though in reality they have none.
This is what the post looked like on social media at the time of writing:
My latest: MASKS DO NOT WORK. PERIOD. https://www.afa.net/the-stand/culture/2020/08/masks-do-not-work-period/#.XyxV_cJ6EME.twitterPosted by Focal Point - Bryan Fischer on Thursday, August 6, 2020
In the American Family Association website article, Fischer claims:
A review of the scientific literature on COVID-19 reveals that simply put, masks and respirators do not work. There have been extensive randomized controlled trial (RCT) studies, and meta-analysis reviews of RCT studies, which all show that masks and respirators do not work to prevent respiratory influenza-like illnesses, or respiratory illnesses believed to be transmitted by droplets and aerosol particles.
Lead Stories reached out to the lead author on each of the papers cited by Fischer to ask if the theologian had summarized their epidemiology studies accurately.
Dr. Josh Jacobs, lead author of the first paper on the list, said Fischer skewed what the team of six scientists actually found in their article in the American Journal of Infection Control: 'Use of surgical face masks to reduce the incidence of the common cold among health care workers in Japan: a randomized controlled trial.'.
I believe the research findings I reported in my 2009 peer-reviewed article are being mischaracterized...Current recommendations for mask use is to limit spread from someone with COVID-19 to someone without COVID-19. My study has no bearing on addressing that recommendation...it appears the author is citing other summaries that are opinions that comport with his own, while representing them as 'science'.
Jacobs is Founding Chairman of the Department of Medical Education and Clinical Sciences at the Washington State University College of Medicine. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians and has published 50 articles in peer-reviewed scholarly journals. Jacobs said the theologian did not seem to understand the statistical method used in his mask study.
Fischer misrepresents the findings of the second paper on his list, too. It is what is called a literature review, which is a bibliography of sorts typically assembled by young researchers to assemble the leading research on a narrow subject. Fischer's summary: 'None of the studies reviewed showed a benefit from wearing a mask.' But here's what the authors themselves wrote as a summary:
There is some evidence to support the wearing of masks or respirators during illness to protect others, and public health emphasis on mask wearing during illness may help to reduce influenza virus transmission. There are fewer data to support the use of masks or respirators to prevent becoming infected.
Lead Stories will update this report, as appropriate, when it hears back from the authors of the other studies Fischer listed as proof of his claim.
Fischer may have plagiarized parts of his article. The 'Here's a sample of the medical literature' section of Fischer's August, 2020, post is identical to this June 11, 2020 article from River Cities' Reader, a Davenport, Iowa news website. Fischer's article does not credit River Cities' Reader nor the author, Denis G. Rancourt, a former professor of physics at the University of Ottawa in Canada. Contents of The River Cities' Reader are protected by copyright, per this notice posted on The Reader website:
In addition to the claimed scientific proof, Fischer's post repeats debunked claims made in a 12-minute video posted by RT, (formerly Russia Today). YouTube warns users that RT is partially or fully funded by the Russian government as part of Russia's information warfare against the United States.
In addition to the detailed debunk of the Russian propaganda video, Lead Stories has published several fact-checks that refute claims Fischer made with no evidence nor citations offered to substantiate the claims, including:
- N95 masks "filter stuff that comes in but filter nothing going out since they are designed for contaminated environments."
- Surgical masks quickly become clogged in normal outdoor environments and trap pathogens inside the mask
- Cloth masks trap carbon dioxide and endanger your health more than you are protecting it.
- None of the available masks have a mesh that's fine enough to capture the COVID-19 particles.