Mask Misinformation and Myth Busting: A Quick Look at Common Claims and Current Data

We are basically one year into the COVID-19 pandemic yet I’m still seeing a ridiculous amount of misinformation around mask wearing, safety, and guidelines. I hit a breaking point today when I read a bunch of posts on a local Facebook group about how masks cause low oxygen saturation and how the government is trying to control us by making us wear them. So here is my breaking point – in a blog post. AKA, here are some common claims/questions and a look at the evidence (or lack thereof) around them.

Please keep in mind – I am no expert! I just feel passionately about this topic and want to provide some data for people who may be a bit confused or on the fence about the whole thing. We were already in a world of information overload, and this year has just added to that. So I totally understand if you feel like you don’t know what is right and wrong at this point. There is a lot of true, scientific information out there – and there is also a lot of misinformation. It can be confusing! That is literally one of the reasons I created this blog – to provide some direction and information. As always – specific health related questions should be directed to your chosen healthcare professional!

Disclaimer: the information in this blog is for informational purposes only. This is not medical advice. Please seek medical advice, if needed, from your trusted healthcare professional.

Claim #1: “the government just wants to ‘control’ me”.

Ok, first of all – who are you? No seriously – I mean, you must be someone extremely important if you think that the government has ‘controlling you’ on their priority agenda.

Just let that one sit for a minute if you need to. I can imagine how much it can hurt to realize you are not, indeed, the centre of the universe.

But seriously?! Please explain to me how making you wear a mask benefits the government in anyway. How does shutting down businesses benefit the government in anyway? Think about the pandemic – the government is taking a hit here, for the most part. We are seeing many governments fail miserably in the way they are handling the pandemic and face repercussions as a result. Even for those who have been more successful – the pandemic still isn’t worth anything positive to them! Maybe a congratulations to so-and-so for handling it well, but that’s about it.

The government is not trying to control you.

“But where is your proof?”

Common sense? Show me proof that cows are not trying to control us. Do it – I want to see it. Because they’ve been co-existing with humans for a long time, some of us even drink their milk. This recent turn to dairy alternatives must be because some of us are more “woke” than others – cows are brainwashing us because they want to control us.

See how ridiculous that sounds? To me, that is how I hear the “government is trying to control us by making us wear masks” argument. It just doesn’t make sense. This leads me to a claim that these “anti-government, mask deniers” often follow up with…

Claim 2: Masks “don’t work”.

Can you please tell this to your surgeon or surgical team next time you or a loved one have surgery? “Please forego the mask, they don’t work! While you’re at it – just forego all the sterile and surgical procedures you follow in the ER, because I imagine there is no science behind any of that”.

There is already an existing bank of testing and studies on mask efficiency in regards to prevent of transmission with respiratory illnesses such as influenza even more since the pandemic hit us because people demanded it. It’s good – we have to answer these questions. We need to know how effective masks are against COVID-19 so we can try and reduce risk and stop the spread.

A recent review found that mask use is efficient in reducing the transmission of COVID-19 in community settings. In combination with other guidelines (such as physical distancing and hygiene) and public health measures (like contact tracing), it is of course the most effective.

(Once again, a review looks at the results of multiple studies.)

One study compared rates of COVID-19 pre and post the implementation of a mask mandate and found that there was a decrease after more people wore masks. This decrease in rates actually increased as weeks went on – which is why it’s important to continue to wear a mask, even when you’re “out of lockdown” for several weeks.

There have even been cases of people who are COVID-19 positive not passing on their illness in a tight or enclosed space such as an airplane. Masking was likely a contributory factor to the decrease in spread in what would otherwise have been a high risk scenario for transmission.

Research on masks is far from complete – there are more in the works everyday. We still need more information, especially because we are clearly in this for the long haul. But the fact that they do reduce transmission risk is pretty clear based on the evidence that we have so far.

Claim 3: “I am not sick or high risk, so I shouldn’t have to wear a mask”

Masks definitely have benefits particularly when worn by the “source”, or a sick person – since it is reducing the chance of spread via droplet (when a person coughs or sneezes for example). The masks you and I wear (non-medical masks) when we go to the grocery store are not actually built to “filter” the air you inhale like an N95 respirator does. This means that by wearing this mask, you aren’t necessarily protected from getting sick – at least not like you would be with an N95. But the claim that wearing a mask “is pointless” or not necessary because it’s not protecting you – is first of all, selfish; and secondly, partially incorrect.

Even if you are not sick, it is important to wear a mask! Why? Because you are protecting others by wearing a mask. You may have heard that COVID-19 can be asymptomatic – meaning you do not have any symptoms of illness. Just because you don’t have symptoms however, doesn’t mean that you can’t spread it. By wearing a mask, you are protecting others around you by reducing the risk of spreading large, infectious droplets to others – those at risk or who may be more vulnerable to illness, as well as everyone else – from getting sick.

So it is not pointless – if we all help to keep each other safe, we can reduce the risk and burden of this disease.

Notably, a brief released by the CDC in November 2020 stated that studies done more recently have shown that cloth (non-medical) masks can reduce the risk of getting COVID-19 for the wearer too. It seems that cloth masks with increased thread counts may be more effective in regards to this, however results have varied across studies.

People are always going on and on about “herd immunity”, yet they don’t truly understand what it means. “If we all get sick, we’ll be fine”. Not exactly how it works friends – but the idea you have there is actually not a bad one. If we all work together by wearing masks and following other precautions, we can help reduce the spread and risk of COVID-19.

Also – to those people who say things like: “while I’m not high risk, so I shouldn’t have to wear one they should just stay home/wear a mask/etc”, please just stop talking. Comments like that scream “I don’t care about other people”, and that is the nicest way I can put that. If you can make a comment like that, I have to assume you’ve never have a loved one who has been sick or immune compromised or high risk, which likely isn’t the case.

So, before you speak – think about how your comments and words affect other people. Then realize that 1) we need to all work together to get through this; and 2) sometimes it is better not to say anything at all.

Question: What are the current guidelines for masks for children? I have seen conflicting recommendations.

You will have to refer to your local Public Health units guidance, or your countries COVID-19 guidance or website for specifics – however, what I can tell you is that there is actually a bit of conflicting information out there.

I have seen it cited a few times on websites that the WHO recommendations don’t align with the Canadian and US recommendations for masking in children. Both the CDC and Health Canada have recommended children age 2 and over wear a mask when out in public spaces. However, the WHO has recommended that children under the age of 5 do not be required to wear masks due to the potential safety risks and need for assistance with mask wearing by younger children. It is important to note that they do recommend following your local guidelines, and that in some scenarios (close contact) children under 5 may be asked to wear a mask.

So what is the verdict? There isn’t really one – the fact of the matter is, if you live in Ontario for example and you want to take your child into the grocery store they are required to wear a mask over age 2. I am sure many people are not doing this with kids still (but I’ve never seen anyone “call anyone out” for it) but in the end it is for safety. What I would say is the best option – leave your kid at home. I know this isn’t a possibility for everyone, but if you can, you should!

I know you want your kids to get out – trust me, I know. My child was born in 2020 and spent her first year of life in this pandemic state. But get them outside before or after your grocery trip. Protect them from potentially picking something up – because really, even a kid who does cooperate to wear a mask will likely still do things like touch their face (increasing their risks of picking up illness on a normal day). They are also potential asymptomatic spreaders – so that is something to think about too.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has a “Mask Mythbusters” article that is a good read for those who have concerns about their child wearing a mask and looks at some common concerns, like breathing difficulties for children while wearing a mask or the risk of carbon monoxide build up with a mask (hint: there isn’t a risk for this).

Note: I did try to look for studies on this but I had a hard time finding anything. If you know of any good data please let me know by tweeting @EITWblog or emailing me!

One important thing: children under the age of 2 definitely should not wear masks, because they could of course not safely take them on/off if needed, so there are clear risks to well-being and safety here. This is a piece of guidance that is shared across sources!

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