It’s hard to imagine, but on the same day that America logged over 200,000 cases of COVID-19 for the first time, with record levels of hospitalization in two dozen states, and levels of death reaching numbers not seen since the disease first plowed over the East Coast in the spring, Republican Rep. Jim Jordan was on Twitter—screaming for schools to stay open and ordering everyone to have big holiday get-togethers. Gym Jordan, everyone: the man so desperate for attention, he doesn’t care how many people have to die to raise his online profile.
However, what’s even more unbelievable is that Twitter, Instagram, and especially Facebook are still overrun with a very special breed of COVID-19-denier: the mask skeptic. Posts claiming that “masks don’t work,” that “cloth can’t stop a pathogen,” and links to old studies on masks and flu are almost as prolific as the virus itself. Assuming these are not all coming from Russian bots, there are a lot of Americans out there who are still amazingly confused about the fastest, easiest, and most effective way to slow transmission of COVID-19.
So here are two studies to show that it’s not just an opinion, or an attempt to cover America’s oh-so-manly chin. Masks work.
When people make claims about masks not working, they almost invariably point back to an early statement from Dr. Anthony Fauci in which he refused to endorse mask wearing for the general public. The most common reason given later, including by Fauci, is that masks were then in short supply, and there was real concern about the limited number of virus-filtering N95 masks becoming unavailable to healthcare workers. That’s true. And, believe it or not, despite all Donald Trump’s bragging about PPE production since then, there are still not enough of these high quality masks available for the healthcare workers and first responders who desperately need them.
But the bigger reason why there was no recommendation for masks at the start of the pandemic was simple enough: No evidence. That doesn’t mean that Fauci and others thought masks didn’t work. It means that, lacking evidence, they were extremely reluctant to push mask wearing, out of fear it might it might distract from the other things they already knew would be effective — like social distancing.
What changed since then is simple: Evidence. Multiple studies around the world showed that masks were highly effective in reducing COVID-19. So effective that in countries like Japan, where the disease made an early entry, and where the government response was slow and more than a little bumbling, the disease was still hugely constrained by the public’s habit of wearing masks. As of this writing, Japan (population 127 million) has fewer cases of COVID-19 than Utah (population 3 million). Masks are a big part of that difference.
But if you’re still skeptical, here are those studies.
Study 1: Kansas
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly was a real standout in the Midwest when she issued an executive order requiring masks in public places on July 3. And the response was about what you might expect in Kansas: social media meltdowns, people staging scenes at their local big box store, and death threats against both Kelly and local officials.
As the second surge of COVID-19 spread over the South during the summer, even Republican governors like Greg Abbott in Texas and Doug Ducey in Arizona allowed county officials to create their own mask mandates if they wanted—an action that effectively ended the growth of that surge.
But Kelly did it the other way around: She issued a state mandate, then allowed county governments to pull out if they wanted. This being Kansas, 81 mostly rural counties struck down the mandate in their area over the next few weeks. But 24 other counties left the mandate in place. So Kansas became something of a hodge-podge, with about a quarter of the state requiring masks, and about three-quarters flouting their bare faces.
After July 3, COVID-19 incidence decreased in 24 counties with mask mandates but continued to increase in 81 counties without mask mandates.
Just like that. Despite being in different parts of the state; despite a wide variety of conditions; despite having unmasked counties as neighbors on all sides: Counties that required public use of masks saw declines in COVID-19. And this effect was not a small one. Counties that wore masks included some of those with the highest rates of COVID-19 before the mandate. They went from increasing cases before the mandate to decreasing cases after the mandate. Counties that did not wear masks had only continued increases.
All of this is available on the CDC website, with analysis and discussion.
Study 2: St. Louis
For those who don’t live in the area, St. Louis the city and St. Louis County are two separate things—more like two neighboring counties than a city in a county. St. Louis is a mid-sized city of about 300,000. St. Louis County includes several other small cities, and totals about a million more; a million more people live in largely suburban areas in the surrounding counties.
St. Louis and St. Louis County also happen to have Democratic leadership in a state that is increasingly scarlet. Unlike Laura Kelly in Kansas, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has been decidedly against a state mandate on masks (even after he caught COVID-19 himself at a mask-free political gathering). However, St. Louis City and St. Louis County did impose mask mandates.
Mask mandates in St. Louis and St. Louis County quickly and drastically slowed coronavirus infection rates this summer compared with outlying counties.
Twelve weeks in, the growth rate of COVID-19 was cut by 40% in the mandate area, as compared to the surrounding counties with no mandate. Not only that, the rate was cut even more among “essential workers,” who had to stay on the job without the luxury of being able to work from home. The result was that the mask mandate was particularly good at protecting communities of color. Where there was no mask mandate, communities were particularly hard hit, because people were more likely to be working retail and food industry jobs that brought them in contact with more maskless people.
In neither Kansas nor St. Louis did a mask mandate eliminate the threat of COVID-19. In the St. Louis study, it didn’t even manage to reverse the growth rate. It just significantly reduced it. Researchers have a pretty good idea why. Many of the people who work during the day in St. Louis and St. Louis County commute from the non-mandate counties in surrounding areas. The same kind of churn was happening with those Kansas counties with mask mandates. So those areas still saw a constant influx of infection from the non-mandate counties.
Masks aren’t perfect. But then, nothing is. Not even the best vaccines. What masks are is cheap, easy, fast, and highly effective.