Right-wing media have been distorting a study on COVID-19 transmission from Denmark, released this week, in order to claim that masks do not work or might even be dangerous, with a variety of false assertions about the study getting significant traction on right-wing talk radio.
Not only are the study’s findings being disputed by other experts — but these conservative media personalities are distorting the study even by its own terms, making claims that it doesn’t make, while the authors continue to recommend that people wear masks and maintain social distancing and other safety protocols.
The study was not asking the question that right-wing distortions now claim
By the study’s own terms, its goal was to examine the mechanism by which masks prevent infections — whether by preventing transmission from infected persons, or protecting the wearer, or both — not whether they work at all: “Observational evidence suggests that mask wearing mitigates SARS-CoV-2 transmission, but whether this observed association arises because masks protect uninfected wearers (protective effect) or because transmission is reduced from infected mask wearers (source control) is uncertain.” [Annals of Internal Medicine, 11/18/20]
The New York Times explains how the researchers approached this question:
The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, did not contradict growing evidence that masks can prevent transmission of the virus from wearer to others. But the conclusion is at odds with the view that masks also protect the wearers — a position endorsed just last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
From early April to early June, researchers at the University of Copenhagen recruited 6,024 participants who had been tested beforehand to be sure they were not infected with the coronavirus.
Half were given surgical masks and told to wear them when leaving their homes; the others were told not to wear masks in public.
At that time, 2 percent of the Danish population was infected — a rate lower than that in many places in the United States and Europe today. Social distancing and frequent hand-washing were common, but masks were not.
About 4,860 participants completed the study. The researchers had hoped that masks would cut the infection rate by half among wearers. Instead, 42 people in the mask group, or 1.8 percent, got infected, compared with 53 in the unmasked group, or 2.1 percent. The difference was not statistically significant. [The New York Times, 11/18/20]
The study acknowledged its own limitations: “Inconclusive results, missing data, variable adherence, patient-reported findings on home tests, no blinding, and no assessment of whether masks could decrease disease transmission from mask wearers to others.” [Annals of Internal Medicine, 11/18/20]
The study was also limited by proper adherence to mask usage among the participants themselves: “Based on the lowest adherence reported in the mask group during follow-up, 46% of participants wore the mask as recommended, 47% predominantly as recommended, and 7% not as recommended.” [Annals of Internal Medicine, 11/18/20]
Finally, the study explicitly warned against distorting its findings: “The findings, however, should not be used to conclude that a recommendation for everyone to wear masks in the community would not be effective in reducing SARS-CoV-2 infections, because the trial did not test the role of masks in source control of SARS-CoV-2 infection.” [Annals of Internal Medicine, 11/18/20]
The study has received major play on right-wing talk radio — filled with major distortions of its findings
American Family Radio host Bryan Fischer claimed, “These masks are useless. Scientifically, it is impossible for them to work.” He further added: “Confirmation for what you’ve heard on this program from the first day that masks were brought forward as the key to protecting you from the virus — they do not work. Randomized, controlled study from Denmark proves the point.” [American Family Radio, Focal Point with Bryan Fischer, 11/18/20]
Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk claimed: “Masks actually hurt people that wear them. That's what the Danish study says, that it actually might further increase the likelihood of being infected.” [PodcastOne, The Charlie Kirk Show, 11/19/20]
Right-wing radio host Vicki McKenna claimed the study “shows that masks do nothing to stop COVID-19 infections.” [1310 WIBA, The Vicki McKenna Show, 11/18/20]
Gerry Callahan claimed: “They came to the conclusion that masks are useless.” [The Gerry Callahan Podcast, 11/19/20]
Bob Frantz claimed: “This is the best and most thorough scientific study we have to date that proves that masking is useless. It's pointless.” [AM 1420, The Bob Frantz Authority, 11/19/20]
Conservative radio host James T. Harris claimed masks will not prevent transmission: “So you had that whole thing, ‘Well, I’m wearing this for your safety.’ … There’s no scientific evidence to back that play.” [KFYI-AM, The Conservative Circus with James T. Harris, 11/19/20]
Michael Berry claimed: “A new Danish report coming out earlier today saying that the masks don't even work. They needed to take away your freedom.” [iHeartRadio, The Michael Berry Show, 11/18/20]
Breitbart host Alex Marlow used the story in order to dismiss mask-wearing as “just a virtue-signal.” [SiriusXM Patriot, Breitbart News Daily, 11/19/20]
Other right-wing media platforms are also spreading misinformation
Right-wing media dishonestly claim that study says mask-wearing could increase infections. One article dishonestly claimed, “In fact, according to the data, mask usage may actually increase the likelihood of infection.” Judicial Watch head and frequent Fox News guest Tom Fitton claimed in a now-removed tweet that masks “may be dangerous.” [The Federalist, 11/18/20; Twitter, 11/18/20]
Conservatives are claiming that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should withdraw its advice for people to wear masks. People making this claim include Fitton as well as frequent Fox News guest and “COVID contrarian” Alex Berenson. [ Twitter, 11/18/20; Fox News, The Ingraham Angle, 11/18/20]
TheBlaze is claiming the study’s authors had to add the warning against distorting their study. Writer Daniel Horowitz declared, “Nobody should pay attention to the disclaimer in the study, which the authors clearly had to write in order to get the study accepted.” [TheBlaze, 11/18/20]
The debate is over whether masks can protect wearers just by themselves — without any other precautions — and different studies have shown different findings, depending on other conditions.
Other studies indicate that mask-wearing may also be effective in protecting the wearer against infection. The New York Times reports: “The study’s conclusion flies in the face of other research suggesting that masks do protect the wearer. In its recent bulletin, the C.D.C. cited a dozen studies finding that even cloth masks may help protect the wearer. Most of them were laboratory examinations of the particles blocked by materials of various types.” [The New York Times, 11/18/20]
The CDC also gathered a set of analyses of high-exposure incidents. In one example, “those who reported having always worn a mask during high-risk exposures experienced a greater than 70% reduced risk of acquiring infection compared with persons who did not wear masks under these circumstances.” [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11/10/20]
While the study examined Denmark, a country with a relatively low rate of COVID-19 infections, doctors would have a different approach in high-infection areas. Dr. Elizabeth Halloran, a statistician at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, told The New York Times: “If you show this article to a health care provider who works in a Covid ward in a hospital, I doubt she or he would say that this article convinces them not to wear a mask.” [The New York Times, 11/18/20]
Masks prevent transmission
Experts reaffirm that masks undoubtedly prevent transmission of the disease by infected individuals. Dr. Thomas Frieden, former director of the CDC and now head of the advocacy group Resolve to Save Lives, told The New York Times: “There is absolutely no doubt that masks work as source control.” [The New York Times, 11/18/20]
The study pointed to evidence that masks help prevent transmission: “Observational evidence supports the efficacy of face masks in health care settings and as source control in patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 or other coronaviruses.” [Annals of Internal Medicine, 11/18/20]
No, masks are not more dangerous — and the study doesn’t say that
The claim that masks could increase infections is a distortion of the paper’s findings, which include a wide range of scientific estimates. The study showed a range of estimated impacts for mask wearing in preventing transmission of COVID-19, from between a 46% reduction up to a 23% increase in infections — with right-wing media figures dishonestly latching onto just that upper figure. Professor Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina explained that as a statistical matter, “having a confidence interval that large doesn't show” what these commentators now suggest. [Annals of Internal Medicine, 11/18/20; Twitter, 11/18/20]
Keep wearing masks — the study authors agree
The study’s lead author says people should continue to wear masks. Dr. Henning Bundgaard, professor of Cardiology at Rigshospitalet in Denmark, told the International Business Times that even under the findings of their study, “a small degree of protection is worth using the face masks, because you are protecting yourself against a potentially life-threatening disease.” [International Business Times, 11/19/20]
The editor-in-chief of the medical journal involved explained that people also need to adhere to other precucations, such as social distancing. Dr. Christine Laine told The New York Times that masks “are not a magic bullet,” in contrast to “people who say, ‘I’m fine, I’m wearing a mask.’ They need to realize they are not invulnerable to infection.” [The New York Times, 11/18/20]