By: Nikita Kochhar
January 12 2023
There is enough scientific evidence to prove that wearing face masks reduces the transmission of COVID-19.
A video doing the rounds on Facebook shows comedian and GB News presenter Mark Dolan challenging the efficacy of face masks and urging everyone to reject them. In the video, Dolan claims, "If masks would have worked we would know by now, but for all of their damage, the figures would suggest they've delivered precious little." Dolan was arguing against the advice issued by Professor Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the U.K Health Security Agency (UKHSA), urging people to wear face masks if they feel unwell to prevent the spread of flu.
In the video, which is more than six minutes long and was shared by Facebook page' GB News Fan' on January 5, Dolan insinuated that there is no evidence that face masks can protect against the spread of coronavirus. He claimed, "Despite us being three years on from the arrival of Covid, it seems that our public health is stuck in a time loop, demanding face coverings that did nothing to stop the spread." Terming the practice of wearing masks "foolish”, he argued that countries with strict masking rules still had a comparable number of COVID-19 cases as those with relaxed or no mask regulations. The video has been viewed over 35 thousand times and shared by more than a thousand users.
Ever since the science behind the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus became clear, the World Health Organization (WHO) has stressed the use of masks as a part of a "comprehensive strategy of measures to suppress transmission of COVID-19 and save lives." Guidance on the WHO website states: "Depending on the type, masks can be used for either protection of healthy persons or to prevent onward transmission or both." According to a Reuters report, in light of the spread of the XBB.1.5 subvariant in several regions, WHO officials urged countries to consider recommending wearing masks to passengers on long-haul flights as recently as January 10.
To back his claim that masks are ineffective in stopping the spread of the coronavirus, Dolan had relied on the comments made by one Dr. Colin Axon to the British daily The Telegraph. However, in his comments, Dr. Axon only refers to the "ineffectiveness" of cloth masks. Experts have long noted that the gaps between the material in woven cloth masks allow COVID-19 particles, but the same logic doesn't apply to more advanced masks.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), masks and respirators (masks with filters like the N95 or KN95) offer different kinds of protection depending on their kind and use. "Loosely woven cloth products provide the least protection, layered finely woven products offer more protection, well-fitting disposable surgical masks, and KN95s offer even more protection, and well-fitting NIOSH-approved respirators (including N95s) offer the highest level of protection". Even the WHO recommends wearing a well-fitting non-medical mask in the absence of other options if the mask has three layers (inner layer of absorbent material, middle layer of non-woven non-absorbent material, and outer layer of non-absorbent material).
The CDC has also explained how masks can catch the droplets from a wearer's mouth and nose and stop them from spreading (i.e., preventing transmission). At the same time, masks also offer the wearer protection from external particles (including the COVID-19 virus). It should be noted that the UKHSA guidelines mocked in the viral video advise those who feel unwell to wear a face covering when stepping out, indicating this advice is about preventing transmission from ill persons to others.
Speaking to Logically, Dr. Punit Mishra, Professor of Community Medicine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi, said that it has been scientifically proven that masks reduce the transmission of respiratory diseases like tuberculosis and even COVID-19. He also explained why despite their effectiveness, most countries no longer impose mask mandates. "All the recommendations pertaining to masking come according to the situation. As far as the current situation is concerned, most people have antibodies for COVID-19 either because of vaccines or by getting infected in the past. Therefore, most people don't need to wear masks anymore.” Dr. Mishra, however, suggested that people who are immunocompromised or want to protect themselves as much as possible should wear a mask and ensure they use a well-fitted, good-quality mask like an N95 mask.
Several peer-reviewed studies also demonstrate the effectiveness of masks in dealing with COVID-19. A research paper titled "Effectiveness of public health measures in reducing the incidence of COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2 transmission, and COVID-19 mortality," published in The British Medical Journal (BMJ) in November 2021, found that wearing masks was associated with reductions in the incidence of COVID-19. The scientists had analyzed six studies with 2,627 people with COVID-19 and a total of 389,228 participants. The study concluded that an overall analysis showed a 53 percent reduction in COVID-19 incidence with the use of masks.
According to a study published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases in March 2021 (available on Science Direct), using masks "significantly reduces the risk of transmitting various respiratory infections." The research reviewed 12 primary studies and found that "10 clinical trials suggested that respiratory infection incidence is lower with high medical facemask compliance, early use, and use in combination with intensive hand hygiene."
Even disposable surgical masks have proved effective in disrupting coronavirus transmission. Stanford Medicine and Yale University researchers conducted a randomized, community-level trial in rural Bangladesh from November 2020 to April 2021, with over 350,000 participants. In their study, published in the journal Science in January 2022, the researchers concluded: "We find especially robust evidence that surgical masks prevent COVID-19."
Masks have therefore been proven effective in dealing with respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19. The CDC notes that wearing them can help prevent severe illness while cautioning that one must wear a high-quality, well-fitted mask or respirator to ensure the highest level of protection from viral infections. Their advice also echoes Dr. Mishra's recommendation for those at higher risk of getting sick to continue to wear masks in poorly-ventilated crowded areas.
There is clear scientific reasoning behind using masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses. There is ample evidence from peer-reviewed studies demonstrating that masks effectively check coronavirus transmission. Therefore, we mark the claim false.
The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to a lot of potentially dangerous misinformation. For reliable advice on COVID-19, including symptoms, prevention, and available treatment, please refer to the World Health Organization or your national healthcare authority.