Like many Americans, I do not like wearing a face mask, which hurts my ears, fogs my glasses, and makes my bearded face itch. And while I think businesses should be free to require face coverings as a safeguard against COVID-19, I am skeptical of government-imposed mask mandates, especially in K-12 schools.
At the same time, I recognize that my personal peeves and policy preferences are logically distinct from the empirical question of how effective masks are at preventing virus transmission. From the beginning, however, the Great American Mask Debate has been strongly influenced by partisan and ideological commitments, with one side exaggerating the evidence in favor of this precaution and the other side ignoring or downplaying it.
Last September, Robert Redfield, then the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), described masks as “the most important, powerful public health tool we have,” going so far as to say they provided more protection than vaccines would. In a 2020 New York Times op-ed piece, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer asserted that “wearing a mask has been proven to reduce the chance of spreading Covid-19 by about 70 percent”—a claim that even the CDC said was not scientifically justified.
The CDC invited skepticism about the value of general mask wearing by dismissing ituntil April 2020, when the agency suddenly began recommending the practice as an important weapon against the pandemic. Although that memorable reversal supposedly was justified by evolving science, the main concern that the CDC cited—asymptomatic transmission—was a danger that had been recognized for months.
When the CDC changed its advice, research on the effectiveness of face masks in preventing virus transmission was surprisingly sparse and equivocal. Although laboratory experiments supported the commonsensical assumption that almost any barrier to respiratory droplets, including DIY cloth coverings, was better than nothing, randomized controlled trials (RCTs) generally had not confirmed that intuition.
A January 2021 review of the evidence in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found “no RCT for the impact of masks on community transmission of any respiratory infection in a pandemic.” The article, which also looked at observational studies, said “direct evidence of the efficacy of mask use is supportive, but inconclusive.”
The authors then considered “a wider body of evidence,” including epidemiological analyses, laboratory studies, and information about COVID-19’s transmission characteristics. “The preponderance of evidence,” they concluded, “indicates that mask wearing reduces transmissibility per contact by reducing transmission of infected respiratory particles in both laboratory and clinical contexts.”
In a “science brief” last updated on May 7, the CDC says “experimental and epidemiological data support community masking to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2.” But it acknowledges that “further research is needed to expand the evidence base for the protective effect of cloth masks.”
Where does that leave Americans who are unpersuaded by the existing evidence? Banned from major social media platforms, if they are not careful.
YouTube recently suspended Sen. Rand Paul’s account because of a video in which the Kentucky Republican said “most of the masks that you can get over the counter” have “no value.” Those statements ran afoul of YouTube’s ban on “claims that masks do not play a role in preventing the contraction or transmission of COVID-19,” which is similar to policies adopted by Facebook and Twitter.
While conceding that “private companies have the right to ban me if they want to,” Paul said he was troubled by the fact that the leading social media platforms, partly in response to government pressure, seem to be insisting that users toe the official line on COVID-19. He has a point.
Paul’s criticism of cloth masks was stronger than the science warrants, reflecting a broader tendency on the right to dismiss them as mere talismans without seriously addressing the evidence in their favor. But rational discourse entails rebutting arguments by citing contrary evidence instead of treating them as too dangerous for people to consider.
Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now think that many Americans will need booster shots in the coming months, and the Biden Administration has plans to make that happen. While the vaccines still provide remarkable protection against severe disease and death, recent studies suggest that an additional shot will help decrease transmission of the more infectious delta variant and prevent breakthrough cases.
For vaccine-hesitant rightwing people—who constitute a substantial proportion of the anti-vax movement, though by no means the whole thing—the need for booster shots has been met with considerable opprobrium and even suggestions that this means the vaccines don’t work. Former President Trump called booster shots a “crazy” idea.
“The whole thing is just crazy,” he said in a recent interview on Fox News. “It doesn’t—you wouldn’t think you would need a booster.”
These comments will undoubtedly contribute to vaccine hesitancy and undermine confidence in booster shots; as such, this sort of talk is deeply irresponsible. It’s as if the former president doesn’t know any better, or just can’t help himself.
So what’s The New York Times‘ excuse?
Astonishingly, the paper of record has opted to give support to this Trumpian denial of vaccine efficacy. A recent news story by Times reporter Apoorva Mandavilli—whose articles on the pandemic have constituted some of the most fear-driven and pro-restriction writing appearing anywhere in the mainstream media—cast doubt on the need for boosters and suggested that people could “easily” obtain the same level of protection by wearing a mask instead.
Mandavilli quotes Boston University epidemiologist Ellie Murray in opposition to booster shots for the general population:
Dr. Murray said boosters would undoubtedly boost immunity in an individual, but the benefit may be minimal — and obtained just as easily by wearing a mask, or avoiding indoor dining and crowded bars.
The administration’s emphasis on vaccines has undermined the importance of building other precautions into people’s lives in ways that are comfortable and sustainable, and on building capacity for testing, she and other experts said.
“This is part of why I think the administration’s focus on vaccines is so damaging to morale,” she added. “We probably won’t be going back to normal anytime soon.”
Note the agenda here: The “experts”—i.e., overly cautious epidemiologists picked by The New York Times to give weight to Team Blue’s quixotic COVID-19 mitigation preferences—think the focus on vaccines is damaging because it comes at the expense of a pro-lockdown, pro-masking, pro-social-distancing strategy. Vaccination, broadly speaking, lets most people live their lives like normal again; this is somehow viewed as a bad thing.
These policy preferences are completely contrary to the reality of the human social experience. The health benefit of a booster shot is not “obtained just as easily by wearing a mask or avoiding indoor dining or crowded bars,” because wearing masks and eschewing conversation with other people is much more taxing than getting a shot. Many normal people actually like talking to people in bars and seeing human faces, so forgoing this indefinitely is not a trivial matter. (Note that the Times recently ran an op-ed piece titled: “Actually, Wearing a Mask Can Help Your Children Learn.”)
If Trump deserves criticism for failing to urge his base to get their shots—and he does—then why should The New York Times get a pass for suggesting to its readers that regular masking is an effective substitute for booster shots? The Biden Administration frets constantly about COVID-19 misinformation being spread by right-wing accounts on social media. But Mandavilli is guilty of the same: She called the delta variant “as contagious as chicken pox” in an article that preached doom and gloom about the current state of the pandemic. It later turned out that this claim, sourced to an internal CDC document, originally appeared in an inaccurate NYT infographic.
I wrote previously that the media’s enthusiasm for mask mandates is so strong that it occasionally seems as if some liberal and mainstream writers prefer masks to vaccines, even though the latter is a vastly superior tool for defeating COVID-19. Now The New York Times has said it quite explicitly: Who needs booster shots when experts say we can just wear masks forever?