BYU Study Aims To Calm Heated Debate Over Face Masks

Jul 20, 2020, 11:56 PM | Updated: Jul 21, 2020, 6:29 am
Intermountain and U of U Healthcare said they are unable to accept homemade masks....
Homemade face masks. (KSL TV)

PROVO, Utah – The heated debate playing out online and in-person over face coverings was the motivation behind a report by BYU scientists that dives into the findings of more than 115 scientific studies on COVID-19 in the U.S. and around the world.

“When we saw how widespread confusion was about COVID-19 and masks, we suspended our normal research program,” said Ben Abbott, a professor of environmental science at BYU and one of four authors of “Making sense of the research on COVID-19 and masks.”

“We are trained in science and we felt a responsibility to make the nonpolitical science available to the people around us,” he said.

To see how hostile the debate has become, you only need to check out your social media feed. Or you can look to last week’s Utah County Commission meeting that garnered national attention when people protesting the governor’s public school mask mandate crowded into the room. The meeting ended early and abruptly when two of the commissioners walked out.

Deputies with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office are investigating an assault at a Walmart over the weekend. A woman was shopping without a mask when she says a man rammed his shopping cart into her cart repeatedly, injuring her back.

It’s examples like these that moved Abbott and his colleagues to dig into the scientific studies.

“Our whole purpose in making this report was to bring just the pure science,” Abbott said. “We’re able to now say with a high level of confidence, masks protect people from COVID.”

“The No. 1 finding from the report is that masks are extremely effective at reducing the rate of transmission of COVID-19 and, surprisingly, also at reducing the mortality rate,” he said. “And that second part is not completely understood. We don’t know exactly what’s going on. The main hypothesis is that if you are exposed to fewer viral particles when you catch the disease you have a less severe reaction, a more mild version of COVID-19.”

The report found up to a third of people who are infected show no symptoms and that your cloth mask can stop 90 percent or more of your own droplets from spreading. But it also notes, “cloth masks are not particularly effective at filtering out particles that are coming at you. What masks do is they trap viral particles that you may have in your system and keep them from getting on your loved ones.”

But what about the concern that masks themselves are dangerous? The report shows people with compromised respiratory systems and those who can’t adjust their own coverings shouldn’t wear them. But there’s no evidence that they cause dangerously low oxygen or high carbon dioxide to the wearer.

“This isn’t about virtue signaling, saying, ‘oh my gosh I’m so much better than you because I’m wearing a mask or I’m so much better than you because I’m not wearing a mask.’ The virus, of course, does not care what our political affiliation is,” Abbott said. “Things have become so politicized. We need to keep politics from stopping us from doing what could to get us back to our normal life the earliest.”

There may be no covering up the politicization of masks, but Abbott says what science has uncovered is clear: if you want to protect others, then cover up.

Abbott added that people shouldn’t “take his word for it.” He encouraged readers to dig into the studies themselves, which they can find referenced in his report.

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BYU Study Aims To Calm Heated Debate Over Face Masks