No, the CDC didn’t report that masks are ineffective against COVID-19

16 Oct

Let’s put this another way. Masks don’t work if you wear them “all the time” but not when you are in the most risky situations. Imagine sitting down to drinks with your friends and saying, “Hey, I wore a mask all day. So I’m safe drinking my beer and talking to you all while in this room filled with other people who aren’t wearing masks”.

Do you wear a mask? How would you characterize your mask wearing? By that I mean, do you wear your mask all the time? Often?

Let’s say you said “all the time”. A lot of people, heck the majority of people say that. Do you wear your mask when you sleep? When you eat? All the time when you are at home? Of course not. You assume by “all the time” to mean “all the time when I’m out and about” or something like that.

Keep that in mind.

Most Americans do wear masks. One recent survey claimed 95% of Americans claim to wear masks. In that survey, 44% said they “always” wear masks.

In a Gallup survey, taken between June 29 and July 5, results showed nine in 10 people said they had worn a face mask at some point in the last week. However, regular adoption was lacking, with 14 percent saying they never wore them and four percent saying they rarely used and 11 percent saying they sometimes used them. Twenty eight percent said they “often” wore them, while 44 percent said they wore them all the time.

–Gallup Survey

The CDC are very interested in what causes the novel coronavirus to spread. And, since they expect masks to have an impact, you wouldn’t be surprised if they asked about mask wearing behavior when they do their studies.

Such is the case in the recent CDC study: Community and Close Contact Exposures Associated with COVID-19 Among Symptomatic Adults ≥18 Years in 11 Outpatient Health Care Facilities —United States, July 2020.

The CDC led team interviewed people who were sick (sick enough to show symptoms) and people who weren’t. They found three important factors differed between those who were sick and those who weren’t:

  • Sick people were more likely to have a close contact who was also sick
  • Sick people were more likely to have gone to a restaurant
  • Sick people were more likely to have gone to a bar or coffee shop

These were big effects. Those who fell ill were about 3 times as likely to report a close contact who was also ill. And often that close contact was a family member.

Close contact with one or more persons with known COVID-19 was reported by 42% of case patients compared with 14% of control-participants (p<0.01), and most (51%) close contacts were family members.


If you asked me, I’d tell you I wear a mask all the time. Am I wearing one now? No, I’m at home with my family. Was I wearing one 8 hours ago? No I was asleep. If someone here is infected, I’m exposed. Even though I wear a mask “all the time”. Because I understand the question to be not literal “all the time”. If I’m outside, especially when other people are present, I wear it all the time.

People who got sick were also much more likely to have gone to a bar, coffee shop or restaurant. Again, this isn’t a small effect. People were 2-4 times more likely to get sick if they went out like this.

First off there is the obvious: if you are in a bar or a restaurant you are probably not wearing your mask, even if you tell a researcher you wear them “all the time”. All the time may mean to you “well, of course not when I’m eating”.

But there’s another factor in play here. If you are at a restaurant you are around other people who are taking their masks off. They are eating too. The CDC asked the people in the study if the other people in the bars/coffee shops/restaurants were wearing masks and social distancing. Here’s that table (click to enlarge):

table from CDC study
Table from CDC report

People who went to restaurants where other people followed social distancing (perhaps seating people farther apart) and mask recommendations (perhaps wearing a mask while not eating/driking) were less likely to get sick.

Let’s put this another way. Masks don’t work if you wear them “all the time” but not when you are in the most risky situations. Imagine sitting down to drinks with your friends and saying, “Hey, I wore a mask all day. So I’m safe drinking my beer and talking to you all while in this room filled with other people who aren’t wearing masks”.

Sadly masks have become a political talking point, and people are and will die because of it. I first saw this in “The Federalist” which chose to misinterpretation of a CDC study to claim that “A Centers for Disease Control report released in September shows that masks and face coverings are not effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, even for those people who consistently wear them.”

Since then, the President was heard repeating the misinformation. With that in mind it was clear it had become a talking point so I checked with an old friend of the blog, Ginger Taylor. She’s an anti-vaccine activist who has been following that movement’s drift into becoming an arm of the alt-right. I knew she’d be on this. It’s misinformation and it’s dangerous and it’s an alt-right talking point. And I wasn’t disapointed. Here she is sharing the story by Tucker Carlson (Fox News entertainment personality). I know understanding scientific reports is not something Ginger does well, but after years of complaining that no study is a real “vaxxed vs unvaxxed” study, you’d think she’d know this isn’t a “masked vs unmasked” study. But, then again, perhaps she does understand it. The truth is not Ginger’s best friend.

So, yeah, this bit of misinformation is now a talking point. An anti-mask talking point. It’s a lie, but for some reason masks are a political statement.

That said, masks work. They prevent the spread of airborne diseases. Let’s take the time to point out this includes spit droplet born diseases. Keep that in mind, you ingest other people’s spit often. We all do when we are talking to each other. Most of the time this isn’t such a big deal, but really, we are talking about a simple way to keep droplets of spit with coronavirus in them from travelling from your mouth to another person’s mouth. Explain to me exactly why that’s a bad thing? Or so difficult to understand?

Hey Ginger? I wonder how many times over the past 20 years you’ve invoked the story of Semmelweis teaching us that germs spread through contact and washing hands prevents disease spread? But, hey, let’s abandon germ theory now, right? And that whole cry of , “let’s find non pharmaceutical ways to keep people healthy?” A mask vs. a hospital stay…gee, even you can do that math and work out which involves more involvement of “big pharma”. Seriously, if masks were being promoted by other anti vaccine activists, you’d never criticize their use. I’ve never seen you show that sort of backbone.

Hey Tucker? I know we aren’t supposed to take your show as fact and all. Your own lawyers say so (You Literally Can’t Believe The Facts Tucker Carlson Tells You. So Say Fox’s Lawyers). But, really, is this the hill you want your audience to die on?

I’ll leave with this one observation that apparently also didn’t register with the likes of Tucker Carlson. The vast majority of Americans wear masks. Over 80% report wearing masks often or all the time. How often do Americans agree on anything to that level these days? Why are you guys fighting against the choice of the American people?

4 Responses to “No, the CDC didn’t report that masks are ineffective against COVID-19”

  1. Dorit Rubinstein Reiss October 17, 2020 at 00:29 #

    Thanks for going through this.

  2. Dorit Rubinstein Reiss October 17, 2020 at 00:31 #

    It is so troubling that this has become so politicized. It’s not hard to say “I want to prevent diseases, thank you, because people getting sick is bad.” It’s not a political statement.

  3. wzrd1 October 17, 2020 at 02:29 #

    When I’m simply outside, I don’t wear a mask, even when walking to the store. I’m in a rather rural area, so it’s rare that I’ll have anyone on foot or bike within 100 feet of me. So, the mask stays dry and ready for when I get within 15 – 20 feet of the door to the store. I also ensure complete seating, to ensure I’m breathing filtered air and not blow-by air from an ill seated edge.
    Because, both I and my wife have comorbidities that would result in the virus killing us. And well, that would rather complicate my weekend plans.


  1. "Masks make you sicker": The unkillable COVID-19 conspiracy theory - RESPECTFUL INSOLENCE - October 16, 2020

    […] purpose with this post is not to relitigate the evidence that masks work. They do, and the evidence only gets stronger as time goes on. Rather, it’s to look at this particular […]

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