Eric Martin

Aug 3, 2021

5 min read

White House Covid Advisor Says Cloth Mask Are Not Effective

are N95 masks better at slowing the spread of the virus?

To add even more confusion to the government response to the covid pandemic, President Joe Biden’s top coronavirus adviser Michael Osterholm said cloth coverings, which millions of Americans are using, are not very effective. Appearing on CNN, Osterholm said, “We know today that many of the face cloth coverings that people wear are not very effective in reducing any of the virus movement in or out. Either you’re breathing out or you’re breathing in.” This statement is something that a vocal minority and even Osterholm himself have said for well over a year. He wrote July 2020, “We don’t know how well cloth masks work.”

The debate over masks takes us all the way back to the begging. It was Dr. Fauci who went on 60 minutes to tell the American public, “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.” In emails released through the Freedom of Information action, Dr. Fauci noted the ineffectiveness of clothes mask, saying, “The typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out the virus, which is small enough to pass through the material.” Dr. Fauci later admitted that he discouraged Americans from wearing masks in order to save them for health care workers.

In an interview with Katherine Ross of TheStreet, Dr. Fauci said, “we were concerned the public health community, and many people were saying this, were concerned that it was at a time when personal protective equipment, including the N95 masks and the surgical masks, were in very short supply. And we wanted to make sure that the people namely, the health care workers, who were brave enough to put themselves in a harm way, to take care of people who you know were infected with the coronavirus and the danger of them getting infected.”

Dr. Fauci, however, is not the only public health official to discourage mask-wearing early in the pandemic. Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted on February 29th, “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!” Adams also cited fears about people hoarding personal protective equipment, a concern from early on in the pandemic when hospitals had a depleted supply.

Michael Osterholm didn’t say that all masks are infective. Just the cloth masks you can make at home or buy in stores. He said that we need to talk about better masking. The preferred mask to wear if you are concerned with public safety are medical-grade masks N95 masks. This recommendation should have been made well over a year ago if you are under the impression masking works. Dr. Fauci and Jerome Adams discouraged mask-wearing to protect the supply of N95 masks for public health workers. Yet, neither one of them recommended them for the general public once the supply of such masks became readily available.

Germany mandates medical-grade masking.

Wearing an N95 mask to protect yourself and others from covid seems like a much better idea than wearing homemade or store bought cloth ones. But are the N95 masks work at stopping the virus? Thankfully the pandemic has given us decentralized real-world experiments. Some nations such as Australia have imposed ongoing lockdowns, while others like Sweden took a radically different approach. Germany responded to the spike in covid cases last fall and winter by mandated medical-grade masking. Germany ratcheted up rules for wearing face masks, becoming the first major European country to require medical-grade protection in shops and public transit in hopes of controlling faster-spreading strains of the coronavirus.

Germany mandated that people wear surgical masks or higher-specification N95 or FFP-2 devices on January 20th. On January 20th, Germany saw over 29,000 new cases with a seven-day rolling average of 15,247. Over the next month, cases fell to 7,162 new daily cases and a seven-day average of 7,359 cases. Is this proof surgical masks are effective in stopping the spread of covid? I’m not a scientist. All I have are charts and graphs.

If you take a birds-eye view of the charts, you can see that by January 20th, cases had already fallen 30% from their January 13th peak. In other words, cases were already falling before the newly upgraded mask mandate. Furthermore, by April 20, a full three months after the mask mandate went into effect, cases in Germany were higher than they were in January. On April 20th, there were 31,397 new cases and a seven-day average of 20,644 cases. As covid does, the number fell after hitting this new peak.

It is hard to look at the charts and see waves of rising and falling cases and conclude that your preferred policy is the reason for the decline but had little effect on the rising cases. Mask has generally failed around the world. Cases are at an all-time high in Japan, while mask-wearing compliance is one of the highest in the world. So high in fact that last summer, Japan headlines around the world were hailing mask-wearing as the reason “Japan crushed COVID-19.” If masks worked then, why don’t they work now?

The best thing public health officials can do to maintain credibility is to be brutally honest with the public. If you want to ensure that health care workers have access to proper PPE, then say so. If you recommend the N95 mask to fight covid, explain the rising and falling cases in Germany. Time and hindsight will give us answers to the questions we are struggling with today. Thankfully, the decentralized covid response has given us mini experiments that allow us to use what works and throw out what does not.

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