The majority of students enrolled in tertiary education in Connecticut are subjected to mask mandates. Masks have proven contentious across the nation, and Connecticut has proven to be no exception. In this very newspaper, Carson Swick offered an argument averse to masks, sparking controversy and counterarguments, most notably one from an anonymous Reddit user.
Meanwhile, over at the student-run newspaper of Yale University, a student named Jack Barker wrote an article arguing the same point as Swick, but his argument has not been challenged. Therefore, I’d like to repudiate Barker’s arguments. Barker also charges the Yale administration with hypocrisy at points, and I cannot adequately respond to that as I have not been to Yale since 2017. More notably, I do not feel compelled to defend the Yale administration and would defer that task to anyone affiliated with the university. I focus solely on Barker’s attacks on masks, which make up a majority of his argument. Since the University of Connecticut has similar COVID-19 restrictions to Yale, this forum seems apt.
Barker begins his argument with a citation of low COVID-19 cases and deaths in Connecticut (as well as Yale) and says that due to the lower numbers, COVID-19 “no longer represents a public health crisis for the Yale community.” Almost immediately, one should feel compelled to respond with, “Throwing out [COVID-19 health measures] when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop [COVID-19 cases from rising] is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet,” as used in the aforementioned Reddit response.
Barker has the burden of proving that these low cases and deaths are attributed solely to vaccinations and that other measures, such as masks, have nothing to do with it. Until he meets this burden, it’s erroneous to cite Connecticut’s low COVID-19 numbers as contributing to his argument and not against it, since Connecticut still has mask mandates in effect such as in schools, institutes of higher educations, government buildings and so forth. There is no evidence by Barker that masks aren’t a factor in these ideal numbers.
Barker’s first attack against masks directly is a charge that masks are a “moist breeding ground for bacteria” that harm professors’ health, but this attack is not backed by the facts. The ScienceDirect study he cites for this charge states, “These results demonstrated that double-layered SMs [surgical masks], which have higher filtration, could significantly reduce the surface contamination [surface of the surgical masks] in operating work areas,” and recommend, “that surgeons must change his/her mask in every operation interval.”
In sum, the study is not saying masks are inherently harmful to one’s health or be disregarded en masse but that double masking or wearing masks with high filtration is the best way to reduce creating a “moist breeding ground for bacteria” environment. If that fails, simply replacing masks every two hours is sufficient. So, Barker should tell his professors to wear high filtration masks or replace their masks after every class, not to cease wearing masks altogether.
The study admits it is narrowly tailored to only the masks they used within the study and all other masks may lack this issue. The study says, “In addition, we also realise that there are likely numerous brands of masks that are made of different materials. Some of these might perform better than others in preventing microbial shed. Comparing specific brands of masks was beyond the scope of this study.” In other words, the study only dealt with one type of surgical mask and concedes all other masks with different materials may not have this issue. It is very plausible that one of the masks that lacks this issue is worn by Barker’s professor.
This narrowness renders Barker’s statement in which he says, “It’s been painful to see professors gasping for breath and squinting through foggy glasses as they speak for hours into what is a moist breeding ground for bacteria,” utterly illogical. This study does not apply broadly to my mask, your mask or the mask of Barker’s professor. If it did (which it explicitly doesn’t), the solution for Barker’s professor is to wear a mask with high-filtration or switch mask after every class, not to cease wearing masks altogether which the study does not argue for. This is the strongest Barker argues that masks are harmful to one’s health. From here on out, he will argue masks are useless.
Barker proceeds by citing an article by Connor Harris. This article was cited by the Missouri Attorney General in a lawsuit he brought against a group of public schools. He was seeking, among other relief, an injunction against masks mandates in these public schools arguing, “Mask mandates for kids in schools are not supported by the science.” The judge, appointed by a Republican, rejected his request. Just like that Republican appointee, I am unimpressed and unpersuaded by that article. Baker mainly cites this article as proof there are good arguments against masks. If there are any, but you will not find one at the Yale Daily News.
Barker’s next source is a randomized controlled trial from Denmark that found “a recommendation to wear a surgical mask when outside the home among others did not reduce, at conventional levels of statistical significance, incident SARS-CoV-2 infection compared with no mask recommendation.” However, Barker’s argument here is specious. The American College of Physicians study explicitly says, “The findings, however, should not be used to conclude that a recommendation for everyone to wear masks in the community would not be effective in reducing SARS-CoV-2 infections, because the trial did not test the role of masks in source control of SARS-CoV-2 infection.” However, that is exactly what Barker is doing as he is using the study to justify a recommendation against masks on the basis that masks are not effective.
As Professor Trish Greenhalg and Dr. Deepti Gurdasani explained in 2020, the study is flawed because “[w]hilst the study involved random allocation of participants (and, therefore, counts as a randomised controlled trial or RCT), this does not necessarily make it high-quality science. On the basis of the published protocol and paper, there appears to have been no involvement of a clinical trials unit (the usual way of quality-checking a RCT), no data monitoring group (again, to be expected in a high-quality RCT) and (most concerning of all) no formal ethical approval. The gold standard criteria for RCTs are set out in the CONSORT statement. The DANMASK-19 authors did not mention the CONSORT standards in their paper.”
However, even acknowledging that the study has issues and that the authors would strongly object to Barker’s use of their study in his anti-mask argument, Barker simply seems to misinterpret the study. The study acknowledged that those who did wear the mask were 18% less likely to get infected but that this was too marginal to not be pure happenstance. The authors note that the study didn’t at all focus on source control (“the ability of masks to prevent the spread of the virus from wearers to others”), which is the primary reason masks are advocated for. They specifically said, “It is important to emphasize that this trial did not address the effects of masks as source control or as protection in settings where social distancing and other public health measures are not in effect.” Ultimately, using this study as an argument to “stop the mask-arade” is grievously wrong.
Barker proceeds to argue against a randomized control trial that provides results against his stance. The query I have here is why are randomized controlled trials inherently superior to observational studies? That’s the question Barker has to answer. Even if this Yale study is flawed by the author’s admission, what gives randomized controlled trials the edge? “Whilst the study involved random allocation of participants (and, therefore, counts as a randomised controlled trial or RCT), this does not necessarily make it high-quality science,” is a quote I cited earlier and it is more relevant here than it was before.
Barker also goes against the author on his own study when he says, “[T]he study failed to find a statistically significant benefit for cloth masks.” The author said, “[Cloth masks] reduce COVID-19 symptoms in our study” and the study said, “[T]he effect was even greater in the villages where the team distributed surgical masks rather than cloth masks. In those areas, infections were 11% lower overall.” By saying greater, the study presupposes the effect was already great with cloth masks, otherwise, the term “greater” would not be used. Now to be fair, the term “significant” is subjective and vague. However, in context Barker is blatantly arguing cloth masks’ benefits are so minimal to be the point of superfluous in defiance of the study and the author himself which both argue that cloth masks, while inferior to surgical masks, still provide a notable benefit.
Barker then takes on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization. The aforementioned Reddit post says, “Anyways here are 65 studies that say masks are beneficial to stopping the spread of COVID-19 and keeping the wearer safe,” and proceeds to cite the CDC webpage Barker attacks. Barker charges all 65 studies as apparently low quality, but this attack is manifestly parti pris. Failure to define low quality leaves the reader to come to the correct conclusion that the studies are low quality because they hurt Barker’s narrative. A “high-quality study” would support Barker’s narrative that masks are harmful or otherwise useless.
One may assert that Barker is calling the studies low quality because they are observational, and a high-quality study is a randomized controlled trial, but this argument also fails. Again, the onus is on Barker to prove why randomized controlled trials take precedence over observational studies. Once he accomplishes this, he has to explain how it’s not hypocritical that he cited an observational study? If observational studies are low quality, then Barker’s cited study about masks being a “moist breeding ground for bacteria” is illegitimate for being low quality, by Barker’s admission (assuming low quality is synonymous for observational study which is the only other reasonable conclusion since Barker fails to define low quality). Ultimately, if it is telling that the CDC has failed to provide randomized controlled trials proving their position, is it not just as telling that Barker failed to provide a randomized controlled trial or observational study proving all masks as harmful or useless?
One may argue he does prove masks useless by citing a 2019 WHO report that includes 10 randomized controlled trials that “found that despite the ‘mechanistic plausibility’ of face masks, ‘there was no evidence that face masks are effective in reducing transmission of laboratory-confirmed influenza.’” He also uses this report to argue that prior to COVID-19, the evidence “showed that masks had, at best, a minimal effect on the transmission of respiratory viruses.”
I vehemently disagree. On Page 26, the report says, “Some studies reported that low compliance in face mask use could reduce their effectiveness. A study suggested that surgical and N95 (respirator) masks were effective in preventing the spread of influenza.” Because an innumerable amount of studies have participants who declined to wear masks, this reduced the efficacy of masks. Thus, the report concludes, “[T]here was no evidence that face masks are effective in reducing transmission of laboratory-confirmed influenza.” However, to conclude an absence of evidence is evidence of absence is asinine. If all participants wore masks, then Barker’s argument would have the bite it lacks in this situation. You can’t include people declining to wear masks as evidence that masks do not work, as that’s like not taking medicine and saying the medicine does not work.
Not even the report engages in this non sequitur, which is why the study says, “Face masks worn by asymptomatic people are conditionally recommended in severe epidemics or pandemics, to reduce transmission in the community. Although there is no evidence that this is effective in reducing transmission, there is mechanistic plausibility for the potential effectiveness of this measure.” The study does not mistake an absence of evidence as evidence of absence, but Barker does. Therefore, he does not meet his burden of showing a randomized controlled trial of masks not working. Collectively, those 10 randomized controlled trials include people not wearing masks, thus artificially lowering masks efficacy rates, which the report concedes.
As for the second point, it’s pure historical negationism to argue that “the science prior to COVID-19 overwhelmingly showed that masks had, at best, a minimal effect on the transmission of respiratory viruses” when the science clearly did not say that but said the opposite. In 2017, a National Center for Biotechnology Information study said, “There is currently a lack of consensus around the efficacy of medical masks and respirators for healthcare workers against influenza,” but “the trends suggest some degree of protection from medical masks, and larger studies are required to measure the efficacy of these devices.” Contrary to Barker’s claim, there was no overwhelming consensus one way or the other, but the trends’ suggestions opposed Barker’s assertion that masks were at worst useless and at best marginally effective.
Barker says, “I cite the above studies not to say that masks don’t work” while simultaneously saying “there’s no conclusive evidence to show that they do work.” These two statements are patently contradictory and the first statement is demonstrably false. Barker’s whole argument is that the scientists get it wrong and that anti-maskers get it right when they say masks are harmful or otherwise useless. Nevertheless, Barker’s argument fails not just from an appeal to authority perspective, but also from an appeal to logic perspective. Barker is correct in that “the evidence for masking is not well supported by randomized controlled trials,” but he is wrong to discount the CDC’s 65 observational studies to make the risible claim that “there’s no conclusive evidence to show that [masks] do work.” Barker argues that just because COVID-19 will probably last indefinitely does not mean masks have to, but the CDC (which Yale and UConn follow) never advocated for permanent masking and scientists are already saying things like “It will be safer to ease mask requirements early next year after more children have been fully vaccinated and the holiday travel season has passed.”
Barker contends that Yale will inevitably have a COVID-19 breakout, since other colleges are, but the source he cites for this claim rejects that. His source says, “the majority of institutions continue to operate ‘near normal’” and the ones that aren’t had a laissez-faire approach to COVID-19. The source cites Liberty University as an example of the latter. That university has operated with Barker’s policies in place, which entails a complete nonobservance to CDC guidelines. That’s why they “[were] hard hit by positive cases and had to shift to online through Friday, too.” It was due to Liberty having “few mitigation strategies in place.” The colleges that reject Barker’s policies, which are most of them, are not facing this issue. Barker’s source says, “Duke University knows all too well the importance of increasing safety protocols. It had its worst week since the pandemic began in late August, with a total of 364 cases. And this is despite the fact that around 95% of its campus has been vaccinated. After suspending dining hall gatherings, requiring masks inside and outside and allowing faculty to transition to remote learning for a period of two weeks, case numbers fell by one-half.” Did Barker cite this pro-mask source by accident or something?
I finally conclude with a few quick points. Barker seems to acknowledge that removing masks will result in an outbreak as it did at Duke and Liberty in the source he cited, but he argues, “[T]hese cases will not result in significant numbers of hospitalizations or deaths.” In other words, so long as Barker’s policy results in an “insignificant” number of college student deaths and hospitalizations, that’s sufficient for him. I wonder if those “insignificant” deaths and hospitalizations would be significant to the family members of students negatively impacted by Barker’s policies. Barker says, “Yale is disproportionately young and healthy. Virtually everyone is vaccinated,” but Duke had all these traits and still suffered under Barker’s policies. He falsely calls the mask mandates useless, claims without evidence they’ll last forever (which would mean nothing anyway since Barker graduates next year), and that the virus killing approximately 1,000 people a day isn’t a crisis. This is ridiculous.