Political News

Fact-checking Mark Meadows's misleading statements on mask efficacy in stopping the spread of coronavirus

Posted September 18, 2020 1:40 p.m. EDT
Updated September 20, 2020 12:14 p.m. EDT

FILE -- White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows listens as President Donald Trump speaks to reporters after walking off Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Sept. 3, 2020. The White House and the pharmaceutical industry were nearing accord on a major deal to lower drug prices when the administration demanded that $100 cash cards be sent to millions of seniors before the election — and the industry balked. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)

— As the US continues to combat the coronavirus, wearing a mask has become a politicized issue. A day after Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suggested masks might be even more important than a vaccine in the fight against the virus, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows argued that masks don't actually make a difference in stopping the spread of the virus.

"I will gladly wear my mask each and every day if that's what makes the difference -- and it doesn't --and I think that even a Dr. Redfield, Dr. Fauci or anybody else would suggest that it is a mitigating effort, but it is not something that is designed to, to actually make sure that we don't have the coronavirus spread," Meadows told reporters.

Facts First: Meadows' framing is ambiguous, but it's false to suggest that masks aren't designed to slow the spread of coronavirus. He's right that it's not a panacea, but to undercut public health officials on the utility of masks is dangerous. Both Redfield and Fauci have publicly touted the role of masks in preventing the spread of coronavirus. While guidance on mask use has evolved over the course of the pandemic, recent studies concluded masks do effectively reduce the spread of respiratory viruses, like Covid-19, and the risk of infection from said viruses. That being said, not all masks are created equal; some are more protective than others.

As scientists have learned more about how easily this new coronavirus can spread in public just by talking or breathing, top US public health officials, including Redfield, have advocated for the use of masks in public setting. And studies and research have backed up those stances.

Per the latest estimates from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), universal mask usage would save 135,000 lives by January 1.

On July 14, Redfield said, "If we all wore face coverings for the next four, six, eight, 12 weeks, across the nation, this virus transmission would stop."

Among non-healthcare workers, a study published in the July-August edition of the journal Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease found that wearing masks reduced "the risk of virus infection by 56% in non-household settings."

In July, after the CDC announced that science shows face masks work to protect both the wearer and others from coronavirus, Redfield said, "face coverings are not a symbol, but they're actually a very important preventive intervention that can really block this virus." And even as early as March, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that "if, in fact, a person who may or may not be infected wants to prevent infecting somebody else, the best way to do that is with a mask."

Since April, the CDC has recommended even non-healthcare professionals wear face coverings in public, especially when distancing protocols are difficult to maintain. "However, face covering is not needed all the time," the CDC advised in July. "It is probably safe for individuals and safe for others to drive alone or to walk or jog alone on an uncrowded route without a face covering."

According to the CDC, even home-made cloth masks are helpful as they catch particles that carry the virus, but they are not equivalent to medical-grade masks and shouldn't be recommended for health care workers. A study from Brigham Young University published in July, found that cloth masks also stop "90% or more of the dispersal of droplets carrying the virus," supporting Fauci's March claims.

Despite these statistics, President Donald Trump has pushed back against the idea of a nationwide federal mask mandate, pointing to outdated comments from Fauci and US Surgeon General Jerome Adams in February and March where they cautioned against the public wearing masks at that time in order to preserve the limited supplies of medical-grade masks for health care professionals at higher risk of exposure.

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