Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest over the weekend gave an interview with the Hendersonville Times-News in which he questioned Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s mandate that North Carolinians wear masks in public when social distancing isn’t possible.
Forest, who is challenging Cooper this fall, said that "masks don’t work with viruses" and that’s why "we’ve never used a mask for a coronavirus, ever.”
WFAE’s political reporter, Steve Harrison, joins Morning Edition host Lisa Worf to discuss Forest's statement.
Lisa Worf: So, Steve, Forest made some bold statements, using words like “never” and flat-out saying masks “do not work” with viruses. Let’s start with him saying that we have never used masks for a coronavirus, ever. Is that true?
Steve Harrison: It depend on who we is, right? In the United States, there was never a severe outbreak of SARS and MERS, which are both coronaviruses, so from that perspective, OK that’s true. But people in Asia certainly wore masks to try and contain outbreaks of SARS. And it worked there.
Worf: And what do scientists say today, four months into the COVID pandemic?
Harrison: There is a growing consensus among scientists and epidemiologists today who say that masks help. And there have been lots of models done where they have projected that universal face coverings would save lives.
I asked Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist from Columbia University. He said that there is no gold standard mask study that quantifies how much they help trap the virus.
But he pointed me to a study published this year in Nature that found that loose-fitting surgical masks can reduce influenza virus contained in droplets – but not aerosols. And it found that those same masks could reduce the amount of coronaviruses – not the novel coronavirus – in aerosols. The researchers – mostly from Hong Kong – said their “results indicate that surgical face masks could prevent transmission of human coronaviruses and influenza viruses from symptomatic individuals.”
Worf: And there was a hamster study this year too, right?
Harrison: There was. Researchers from Hong Kong and China wrote that this year that there is a lack of experimental evidence supporting surgical mask usage for prevention of COVID. So they tried to fix that. They placed COVID-infected hamsters near non-infected hamsters and found that a surgical mask partition reduced the chance of transition to the non-infected.
And researchers in Australia approached parents of kids with the flu leaving the doctor’s office in 2006 and 2007. And they gave some medical masks, while others were given loose-fitting surgical masks and some masks similar to the N95s.
And the study found that using masks “significantly reduced the risk” of the parents getting flu-like infections. But the problem was the adults didn’t wear the masks enough. But the study also said that “during a severe pandemic” mask usage might be greater.
Worf: What did Forest’s campaign say yesterday about the controversy?
Harrison: They dialed back the comments just a bit. Campaign spokesperson Andrew Dunn shifted the debate to what he said is the “conflicting” advice on masks that national health leaders have given on masks in the last four months. And in that context, that’s an easier position to defend.
And of course, the biggest change came from Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Back in early March he said “there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask” and he said it might make people feel better and block a droplet but it’s not providing perfect protection that people think it is.
So that was then. The CDC then a month later recommended that Americans wear some sort of face covering, and it said the change was based on the new knowledge of asymptomatic people spreading the virus.
And the World Health Organization has shifted its position. Since June it’s recommended that people wear a face covering in crowded places, but the WHO’s endorsement of masks is a little lukewarm. It says “there has been limited evidence on their effectiveness and WHO does not recommend their widespread use among the public for control of COVID-19.”
Worf: And they also pointed to other studies, right?
Harrison: They did. Probably the most famous is a recent study published in New England Journal of Medicine in May that said, “we know that wearing a mask outside health care facilities offers little, if any, protection from infection.” The study went on to say that “the chance of catching COVID-19 from a passing interaction in a public space is therefore minimal. In many cases, the desire for widespread masking is a reflexive reaction to anxiety over the pandemic.”
So Forest would have been on stable ground had he said there is plenty of disagreement about masking.
Worf: And that leads me to ask about his campaign web site where you can buy a Dan Forest mask for $15.
Harrison: You can. He had posted on Facebook that, since they are now mandatory, you can buy one to support him.
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