Dissipation of the COVID-19 pandemic has made face masks mostly a below-the-chin fashion accessory or back-pocket-stuffer. Still, COVID-19 plays tricks on common sense as New York City drops its mask mandate for small children while Glacier National Park reinstates one for wilderness hikers. If, as science predicts, the virus is to become a cyclical peril of the cold season, reconsideration should be given to the effectiveness of the respiratory barriers as a first-line defense against the virus. New research points to their failure to protect.
A study outlined in the journal Medicine, first published in February, examined COVID-19 death rates in Kansas, where counties were given the option of implementing mask mandates or foregoing them. With 81 of 105 counties in the “Sunflower State” opting out, researchers studied data collected between Aug. 1 and Oct. 15, 2020, concluding, “The most important finding from this study is that contrary to the accepted thought that fewer people are dying because infection rates are reduced by masks, this was not the case.”
Instead, the study found evidence that counties with mask mandates suffered a COVID-19 death rate 50% higher than those without. The hypothesized cause: The virus lodges in a wearer’s mask, only to be inhaled deeper into the lungs, where it is more likely to cause death. The phenomenon has been dubbed the “Foegen effect,” named for a German scientist who first theorized the virulent dynamic.
Similar evidence of mask failure turned up in an April study published in the National Library of Medicine. Studying data gathered from 35 European nations, researchers found “the widespread use of masks at a time when an effective intervention was most needed, i.e., during the strong 2020-2021 autumn-winter peak, was not able to reduce COVID-19 transmission. Moreover, the moderate positive correlation between mask usage and deaths in Western Europe also suggests that the universal use of masks may have had harmful unintended consequences.”
The studies’ conclusions are disturbing. Attempting to “follow the science” during the pandemic, Americans have been forced into a game of hide-and-seek with the facts. White House Chief Medical Adviser Anthony Fauci and other medical officials famously discouraged mask use before making the reliance of one, two and more a symbol of social virtue. And the public was befuddled once again when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first advised travelers to mask up as protection against a recent monkeypox outbreak, then deleted the guidance as unnecessary.
If the face cover fails as a protective device, it nonetheless has its uses. Joe Biden, for one, has made the mask the logo of his presidency. Mr. Biden strode onto the stage of “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” last week sporting his signature black face mask. Pausing momentarily to seal the symbol, he whipped it off to defend policies driving the U.S. economy toward recession.
To be sure, virtue-signaling is no crime. Lacking evidence of efficacy against COVID-19, though, face masks should be a choice, not a mandate.