We’ve heard repeatedly from health officials that wearing a mask slows the spread of COVID-19 and helps protect people from the virus. But a Facebook post shared a claim suggesting the opposite.
“Study finds ‘positive correlation’ between higher mask use and COVID-19 deaths,” reads a headline image shared in a May 17 post. This headline originally came from The National Pulse, a conservative media site that ran a story about a study on masking in Europe.
“Apart from noting that mask compliance has no benefit in containing the spread of COVID-19, the paper found a ‘moderate positive correlation’ between mask use and COVID-19 deaths,” the Pulse wrote.
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The study cited by Pulse was titled “Correlation Between Mask Compliance and COVID-19 Outcomes in Europe.” It appeared in the Cureus Journal of Medical Science, an open-access medical journal that encourages post-publication peer reviews, a process that critics say is unusually quick compared to other scientific journals.
Author Beny Spira, Professor in the Department of Microbiology at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, examined data from 35 European countries on morbidity, mortality and mask use over a six-month period from October 2020 to March 2021. Mask use was moderate the “percentage of the population who say they always wear a mask when going out of the house”.
The data shown in Spira’s study showed that countries where mask use was more widely reported — like Hungary, where 77% of the population wore masks according to the study — had a higher rate of cases and deaths than countries with lower mask usage .
COVID-19 deaths, he wrote, appeared to be rising in western Europe despite masking in place. Spira wrote that this seemed to indicate “that the universal use of masks may have had harmful unintended consequences.”
In an email interview, Spira told PolitiFact that “more deaths have occurred in countries that are more masked”.
But the study stopped short of saying the masks caused deaths, as the post suggests.
“I can’t say that masks caused more deaths because causality could not be inferred from observational studies,” Spira said. “Nevertheless, the correlation was relatively strong, so one could conclude that something was fishy with masks.”
Emily Smith, an epidemiologist at George Washington University, said the logic behind the finding was flawed. Masking protocols were put in place because of the high virus risk at the time, she said.
“I think it’s only common sense that we can say that as cases rise, people are more likely to take protective measures,” Smith said. “You’re more likely to wear a mask when you go out, and your city or country may also have recommendations or requirements to do those things.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other national health agencies worldwide such as the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control recommend masks as a line of defense against the spread of COVID-19. They recommend masking, especially at high transmission rates, because of the way the virus is transmitted. Any mask offers more protection than no mask, but how protective a face covering is depends on the type, brand, and fit, the CDC said. Respirators, such as N95 or KN95 masks, offer the highest level of protection.
“Because the virus is predominantly transmitted through inhalation of respiratory droplets from infected individuals, universal mask use can help reduce transmission,” the CDC said in a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report released in March 2021. The report is based on data from March through December 2020 that mask requirements “were associated with a statistically significant decrease in daily county-level COVID-19 cases and mortality rates within 20 days of implementation.”
The risk of transmission when wearing a mask it also depends on the masking practices of others in the room – so if you go to a meeting or restaurant where others are not masked, or only wear cloth masks, you increase the likelihood of infection.
A Facebook post said there was a “positive correlation” between higher mask use and COVID-19 deaths.
The post referred to a study that reviewed data from 35 European countries and found that places where mask use was higher also had higher COVID-19 deaths. But the study’s author said no cause and effect had been found.
Critics of the study said masking protocols were issued in response to high transmission rates. So it would be expected that there would be fatalities during the masking.
Public health officials recommend masking as a way to reduce transmission.
We consider this claim false.