The Evidence for Face Covering Is Crystal Clear — If You Ask the Right Question

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Face masks have become the newest battleground in America’s neverending culture wars. The mask-wearing side relentlessly shames those who don’t wear a mask, and the no-mask side occasionally shoots people who ask them to wear masks.

This was probably inevitable. Cultural warriors come out of the floorboards during an election year — especially now that a majority of the electorate votes against the side that they hate more than for the side that they like. It is in a lot of people’s interest to make us hate each other.

But the face mask issue goes deeper than the average random shibboleth that divides Americans into political tribes. It touches on the core identities of both conservatives and liberals. Being required (or even asked politely) to wear a mask in a public space grates like fingernails on the ideological chalkboard of conservatives, who prize liberty and self-determination, and who view any government agent with suspicion.

In much the same way, having everyone wear a mask in order to protect everybody else plays directly into the communitarian sensibilities of many liberals. It is the next best thing to joining hands and singing “Kumbaya” in an age when both handholding and singing come with an unacceptable level of risk.

But people rarely argue about their core values, which, by their very nature, are not subject to rational debate. We prefer to argue from things like “evidence,” “science,” and “common sense.” In this vein, and depending on where you hang out in the social media trenches, you have probably heard some variation of the three following arguments:

  • “Only specially designed surgical masks prevent the COVID-19 virus from being inhaled. Wearing cloth masks has no value at all. Cloth masks are just a politically correct, feel-good measure with no practical value.”
  • “Surgical masks can stop the virus, and cloth masks might provide some level of protection, but this may or may not be worth the disruption to people’s lives that universal face-covering rules would inflict.”
  • “Facemasks are essential to containing COVID-19. Since most people don’t have access to specialized surgical masks, they should wear cloth masks or cover their faces the best that they can in public. We should make this a universal requirement.”

Everybody I know who advocates one of these positions has spent many minutes on the Internet Googling scientific studies that support their position, making them ready to take on all comers in whichever Facebook thread or comments section they may find themselves.

And here’s the strange thing: all three positions are absolutely correct. All three can be amply supported by the available data. But each of them answers a specific question, and the answer you get depends on the question you want to answer.

If the question is, Will face masks keep me safe from COVID-19? then the answer is, “not really.” An N95 surgical mask will prevent transmission if worn properly — but those are in short supply, and health care workers need everything that we can produce. Other surgical masks provide more protection, but typical cloth masks are close to useless in this respect. The virus is too small, and the holes in the mask too big, for them to be an effective barrier against transmission. If the only question is self-protection, then typical cloth face coverings are not going to do the trick.

If the question is, Will face masks keep me from spreading COVID-19 to other people if I become an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19? then the answer becomes, “somewhat.” No reputable scientist or researcher has suggested that cloth masks provide 0% protection against COVID-19. Similarly, none has suggested that it provides 100% protection. The answer lies somewhere in the middle, from 30–40% in some estimates to as high as 80% in others. So, while wearing a facemask does not guarantee that you will not infect other people with the disease, it does reduce, to some level, the risk of your doing so.

But here is the really significant takeaway: if the question is, Does the universal wearing of facemasks in public places, combined with other social distancing and mitigating strategies, lower the transmission of COVID-19 within a community? the answer is an unambiguous, “yes.” The marginal benefits of any one person covering their face in public are compounded when we look at an entire community. Studies consistently show that universal masking would cut COVID transmissions by 80% or more. These numbers are consistent across computer model simulations and studies of countries that have actually adopted universal masking. Even Fox News is on board. As a public health measure, masking works.

But, as Americans have proven over and over again, we aren’t very good at public health, or of thinking of ourselves as part of an organic community in which everybody’s actions affect everybody else’s chances of survival. Many public health interventions — including wearing masks during a pandemic and, to push another hot button, getting vaccinated for deadly diseases — convey only marginal benefits to any one person, which may or may not outweigh the inconvenience they impose. But when everybody does these things, the societal benefits are enormous. Because, when the question is “How do we survive as a people?” the answer is very often going to be, “by working for the common good.”

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