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The Mask Fanatics Are Making a Comeback
I suppose we shouldn't be surprised.
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The pandemic is over, but the compulsion of many Americans to wear masks continues, thanks in part to a growing public-relations campaign waged by members of the media and self-proclaimed public health experts designed to convince America’s institutional stewards to resurrect the covid-mitigation regime. This campaign is being enthusiastically endorsed by those who don’t feel safe unless they can impose their preferred public health conventions on their neighbors—the lack of evidence for such interventions be damned.
The past month or so has seen a concerted effort by the media to rally the coalition of the perpetually anxious, as fear porn and straight up “misinformation”1 is being laundered through “health officials” and “experts” in a bid to restore covid protocols.
The Los Angeles Times said earlier this month that with covid “heating up,” the risks might be “high enough to go back to safety measures that many have abandoned.” The paper has advised its readers to “consider masking when you’re around people” because “they’re more effective when everyone wears one.”
The New York Times warns that “Test positivity has risen to 7.6 percent, a level last seen in November 2021, and that summer, just before the Delta variant swept the nation.” Stony Brook Children’s Hospital infectious-disease specialist Dr. Sharon Nachman told CBS that the uptick in covid positivity has the medical community “worried.” Combined with the seasonal onset of flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases, “the winter may be a big problem.” University of Texas epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina, when asked by PBS Newshour host John Yang if she would recommend masking in response to the “recent uptick” in covid infections, declared that “Yes, you should be wearing masks in crowded areas, especially during a surge,” as well as at home “if you want to reduce household transmission.” According to Dr. Robert Wachter, professor and chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, the virus “sees” that it has been months since most people got boosted: “The virus sees that and sees most faces and noses and mouths are uncovered and unprotected, so it takes advantage of that opportunity.”
Such fear mongering is having an impact, popularizing a nascent protest movement that seeks to bring back mask mandates. As Noah Rothman has noted, “Groups that call themselves ‘MaskBloc,’ some of which have courted controversy in their efforts to reinforce masking as a universal social norm, are popping up like mushrooms.” Other groups, including the “People’s CDC” (which has a certain CCP/Bolshevik ring to it), have been petitioning America’s public health institutions. These “anti-capitalist” solidarity movements seek “to educate people about the ongoing pandemic as the government, corporations and complicit media declare it over.”
Judging by the findings of a recent poll, the people who comprise these groups aren’t exactly outliers. Boston.com, reporting on the “745 confirmed new COVID cases as well as 340 probable cases” in the state of Massachusetts — which has a population of nearly 7 million, mind you — asked its readers whether or not they agreed with some local businesses once again requiring masks. Of the 2,300 people polled, a whopping 87% said yes.
“Preventing spread of illness shows that you care about others around you,” said one reader. “You might even save some lives.” Emily of Ispwich stated that “COVID disables and kills. I want to stay alive and want others to be alive too.” “Nothing has changed,” another reader asserted. “When we all wear masks, we are all protected.”
Such theatrical conscientiousness and absurd faith in the efficacy of masks flies in the face of the findings from one of the largest and most comprehensive studies on the subject. Published by the Cochrane Library in January, the study reviewed 78 randomized control trials — “the gold standard” for medicine — which assessed the effectiveness of face masks against covid, the flu, and similar illnesses. It found that wearing masks “probably makes little or no difference” for the general public, regardless of the kind of mask used. Even N95 masks, which have been touted as offering the most protection against airborne particles, showed no clear benefit for health care workers.
Nevertheless, some institutions have reinstated mask mandates. Morris Brown College in Atlanta announced that students and employees returning to campus will be required to wear masks, though staff are allowed to take them off “in their offices while alone.” Students must adhere to 2020-style social-distancing protocols, isolate and quarantine if they contract covid, comply with contact-tracing efforts, and avoid large gatherings. Morris Brown College’s students can commiserate with those at Rutgers and Georgetown, which still require indoor masking and proof of vaccination.
Two Upstate Medical University hospitals in Syracuse, N.Y., are enforcing masking as well for all “staff, visitors, and patients” — a necessary precaution to ensure what one clinician described as “our capacity to care for all our patients” amid “an upward trend of Covid associated hospitalizations in our community.” New York’s covid tracker does indeed show that the central region of the state, where Syracuse is located, has experienced an uptick in covid-related hospitalizations during the month of August. But it’s a tiny uptick, and even the New York Times admits that “the latest increase in Covid hospitalizations is still relatively small and that the vast majority of the sick are experiencing mild symptoms comparable to a cold or the flu.”
Meanwhile, over in Hollywood at the Lionsgate studio, an astounding “several” employees recently came down with covid, prompting executives to reintroduce involuntary masking and self-screening protocols. “Employees must wear a medical grade face covering (surgical mask, KN95 or N95) when indoors except when alone in an office with the door closed, actively eating, actively drinking at their desk or workstation, or if they are the only individual present in a large open workspace,” reads the email to Lionsgate employees obtained by Deadline. The restored mandate applies immediately and until further notice.
It’s somewhat of a mystery why so many Americans remain such ardent mask proponents despite the dearth of evidence supporting their efficacy, but I have some thoughts on the matter.
The day after the CDC endorsed nationwide mask-wearing,2 President Trump announced, “I won’t be doing it personally.” Almost instantly the issue took on an inordinate significance such that covering one’s face became an eccentric phylactery henceforth adopted en masse by proselytizers of The Science™. It wasn’t much later that one could empirically verify that masks had evolved from a basic, precautionary mitigation strategy with very questionable efficacy to a badge of political allegiance and moral superiority that has proved stubbornly in vogue.
It is fully within the realm of possibility that what started as incompetence and the inception of Fickle Fauci, who famously flip-flopped on masks,3 was subsequently seized upon as a petty political cudgel to be used against Trump and his deplorables, at which point the issue in question took on disproportionate importance such that masks became a bizarre fetish appropriated by liberals with apostolic fervor on account of Trump being “anti-mask” but our Lord and Savior Tony Fauci indicating the opposite.4
Regardless, there remains a non-trivial segment of society for whom masking and diligence against covid in general — a kind of hygiene theater, a symbolic purification ritual in line with the bizarre notion that civic duty is best expressed through lonely asceticism — remains an expression of one’s progressive bona fides, even when it means exaggerating the risk covid poses to them. For these folks, who could be described with some degree of accuracy as self-appointed suburbian mutaween obsessed with enforcing burqa-wearing and the new public morality, donning a mask is more about signaling one’s virtue and solidifying an Us-versus-Them tribalism than it is prophylaxis.
This new species of religious identitarian fanatic sees the lessening of covid restrictions as a giant moral failure that’s somehow linked to Trumpism. Lacking the capacity to cope with the inescapable reality of death and disease, these fanatics turn to talismans5 that give the illusion of protection. Public’s Alex Gutentag writes that such people don’t want to acknowledge that there’s no hygienic benefit to mask mandates because the notion that a simple surgical mask can ward off illness is emotionally reassuring. For them, masking brings order and a sense of control to an otherwise chaotic and scary world by marking individuals as either dirty or clean. Indeed, many of these people seem to actually enjoy mask mandates because it provides a false sense of security. They’re sheep. They happily obey authorities promulgating The Science™ because doing so means they don’t have to deal with the weight of responsibility that comes with making their own choices.
But for others still, masking has become a sort of emotional crutch.
The Guardian‘s Julia Carrie points out that many Americans like their masks just fine—but often for disconcerting, unhealthy personal reasons. Francesca, a 46-year-old, fully vaccinated professor in New York, is unwilling to part with her “invisibility cloak” just yet. “It has been such a relief to feel anonymous,” she said. “It’s like having a force field around me that says, ‘don’t see me.’” Becca, a 25-year-old bookstore employee near Chicago, reports that she and her co-workers “prefer not having customers see our faces,” because “[w]ith a mask, I don’t have to smile at them or worry about keeping a neutral face.” Bob, a 75-year-old retiree in New Jersey, says wearing a mask “frees” him from having to “appear happy.” Aimee, a 44-year-old screenwriter in Los Angeles, likes the “emotional freedom” that comes from wearing a mask: “It’s almost like taking away the male gaze.”
It’s clear that these people are suffering from “mask dependency,” as this psychological affliction is termed in Japan, where a long tradition of mask-wearing during flu season has left some individuals afraid at any time to expose their faces in public.
The wearing of masks has long been advertised as a cost-free action, a minor inconvenience that nobody should object to. But as City Journal’s John Tierney highlighted, nothing could be further from the truth.
Even before the pandemic, dozens of studies had demonstrated “Mask-Induced Exhaustion Syndrome.” Symptoms include “an increase of carbon dioxide in the blood, difficulty breathing, dizziness, drowsiness, headache, and diminished ability to concentrate and think.” Similar adverse effects were reported in a mid-pandemic study of health-care workers in New York City. Over 70% of the workers said wearing a mask for prolonged periods resulted in a headache, while approximately 25% blamed it for “impaired cognition.”
A recent review of scientific literature from Germany suggests that the excess carbon dioxide breathed in by mask-wearers may have a substantial toxic effect—particularly for pregnant women, children, and adolescents.6 It’s simple: Mask-wearers breathe in greater amounts of air that should have been expelled from their bodies and released out into the open. “[A] significant rise in carbon dioxide occurring while wearing a mask is scientifically proven in many studies,” write the German authors. “Fresh air has around 0.04% CO2,” they observe, while chronic exposure at CO2 levels of 0.3 percent is “toxic.” How much CO2 do mask-wearers breathe in? The authors write that while eight times the normal level of carbon dioxide is toxic, research suggests that mask-wearers are rebreathing 35 to 80 times normal levels.
What can breathing too much carbon dioxide do to you? Per the authors, “at levels between 0.05% and 0.5% CO2,” one might experience an “increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and overall increased circulation with the symptoms of headache, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, dizziness, rhinitis, and dry cough.” Rates above 0.5% can lead to “reduced cognitive performance, impaired decision-making and reduced speed of cognitive solutions.” Beyond 1%, “the harmful effects include respiratory acidosis, metabolic stress, increased blood flow and decreased exercise tolerance.” Mask-wearers are likely breathing in CO2 levels well above these thresholds: between 1.4% and 3.2%.
Because of research linking elevated carbon dioxide levels with stillbirths, the U.S. Navy started limiting the level on its submarines when female crews began serving. But the researchers warn that “it is clear that carbon dioxide rebreathing, especially when using N95 masks, is above the 0.8% CO2 limit set by the US Navy to reduce the risk of stillbirths and birth defects on submarines with female personnel who may be pregnant.” That is, mandates have forced pregnant women to wear masks resulting in levels of CO2 inhalation that would be prohibited if they were serving on a Navy submarine.
In fact, according to the researchers, there exists “circumstantial evidence that popular mask use may be related to current observations of a significant rise of 28% to 33% in stillbirths worldwide and a reduced verbal, motor, and overall cognitive performance of two full standard deviations in scores in children born during the pandemic.” They cite recent data from Australia, which “shows that lockdown restrictions and other measures (including masks that have been mandatory in Australia), in the absence of high rates of COVID-19 disease, were associated with a significant increase in stillborn births.” They also note that “no increased risk of stillbirths was observed in Sweden,”7 which refused to impose the covid mandates and restrictions enforced in much of the Western world, and that for countries where mask-wearing has long been common (i.e. - Asia), the stillbirth rates have been significantly higher.
This data on the toxicity of carbon dioxide has been known for 60 years. Indeed, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is part of the CDC, has CO2 threshold limits of 3% for 15 minutes and 0.5% for eight hours in workplace ambient air. And yet no one has pushed masks as hard as the CDC, which still recommends masking for all Americans — including children two years old and above — on indoor public transportation, and for everyone living in areas with high rates of covid transmission. Instead of carefully analyzing the effects of masks, the agency has repeatedly tried to justify them by misrepresenting short-term trends and citing cherry-picked data and consistently flawed studies.
With all the above in mind, it’s clear that mask mandates were among the worst public-health interventions in modern American history, imposed on us by public health officials and credulous executive-branch leaders who ignored centuries of Western norms, the best medical evidence, and common sense in favor of their own idiotic, evidence-free policies.
Even so, there are still those of a particular psychological disposition for whom the illusion of safety is preferable to the hazards of liberty, and these people are keen on seeing us return to a pre-vaccine paradigm. The media class is right behind them; their calls for renewed mandates are growing louder because an election year is approaching, and exploiting people’s fear of covid has proven beneficial for Democrats. As the mask fanatics begin to test our willingness to acquiesce to renewed restrictions, appealing to our sense of solidarity or inducing paranoia in an effort to bring back pandemic-mitigation measures, it’s incumbent on all of us not to indulge them.
“Masks work, period,” Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a professor of global health and infectious diseases at Stanford Medicine, tells the New York Times. “Whether you choose to use them or not is a different matter. But they definitely work.”
In their pre-Covid planning strategies for a pandemic, neither the CDC nor the WHO had recommended masking the public. And that’s because randomized clinical trials involving flu viruses had shown that there was “no evidence that face masks are effective in reducing transmission,” as the WHO summarized the scientific literature.
Another example of this dynamic: Trump suggested the virus came from the Wuhan lab, and immediately the media and anti-Trump fanatics effectively banned any discussion of it. Whatever Trump was for, they were against.
It’s tempting to compare the maskaholics with the villagers in Cambodia who erected “Ting Mong” (magical scarecrows) in front of their huts to ward off the coronavirus.
The study focused only on CO2, but the authors note that “other noxious agents in the masks contribute to toxicological long-term effects like the inhalation of synthetic microfibers, carcinogenic compounds and volatile organic compounds.”