Face masks: what the data say

10 Oct, 2020
The science supports that face coverings are saving lives during the coronavirus pandemic, and yet the debate trundles on. How much evidence is enough?

When her Danish colleagues first suggested distributing protective cloth face masks to people in Guinea-Bissau to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Christine Benn wasn’t so sure.

“I said, ‘Yeah, that might be good, but there’s limited data on whether face masks are actually effective,’” says Benn, a global-health researcher at the University of Southern Denmark in Copenhagen, who for decades has co-led public-health campaigns in the West African country, one of the world’s poorest.

That was in March. But by July, Benn and her team had worked out how to possibly provide some needed data on masks, and hopefully help people in Guinea-Bissau. They distributed thousands of locally produced cloth face coverings to people as part of a randomized controlled trial that might be the world’s largest test of masks’ effectiveness against the spread of COVID-19.

Face masks are the ubiquitous symbol of a pandemic that has sickened 35 million people and killed more than 1 million. In hospitals and other health-care facilities, the use of medical-grade masks clearly cuts down transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But for the variety of masks in use by the public, the data are messy, disparate and often hastily assembled. Add to that a divisive political discourse that included a US president disparaging their use, just days before being diagnosed with COVID-19 himself. “People looking at the evidence are understanding it differently,” says Baruch Fischhoff, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who specializes in public policy. “It’s legitimately confusing.”

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