President Donald Trump on Thursday night cocked his head and spewed viral misinformation all over the American people, potentially infecting millions with a bit of anti-mask propaganda completely void of scientific substance.
On two separate occasions Thursday night, the President said that the CDC reported “that 85% of the people that wear masks catch it” — that is, catch COVID-19. He made the same claim earlier Thursday, telling a largely maskless rally crowd that “85% of the people wearing the masks catch it.”
That statistic and similar ones have gripped the COVID truther community in recent days, and, as has often been the case during this pandemic, emerged from a wildly misconstrued real report.
The CDC report the President cited asked a pool of 314 people, around half of whom had tested positive for COVID-19, about their behavior in recent weeks. And it didn’t say anything like what the President claimed. It wasn’t even primarily about mask-wearing. (As the Associated Press pointed out, if what Trump said were true, the majority of the country would be infected.)
What the report really emphasized — shocker — is that people were more likely to have tested positive for COVID-19 if they 1) went out to eat or drink at a restaurant or bar, and 2) were in close contact with someone else who has COVID-19.
“Findings from a case-control investigation of symptomatic outpatients from 11 U.S. health care facilities found that close contact with persons with known COVID-19 or going to locations that offer on-site eating and drinking options were associated with COVID-19 positivity,” the report noted.
“Adults with positive SARS-CoV-2 test results were approximately twice as likely to have reported dining at a restaurant than were those with negative SARS-CoV-2 test results.”
The mask disinformation comes from distorting some numbers that were also included in the report. Specifically, this bit:
The column on the left represents those who tested positive for COVID, the column on the right is the control group.
There are some inherent flaws in relying on responses to small surveys like this, specifically that people feel social pressure to lie and report wearing a mask more often than they did. But even accounting for that, the data in fact show that the non-COVID control group wore masks “always” and “often” in greater numbers than COVID patients surveyed: 88.7% versus 85%.
Nonetheless, anti-maskers in recent days have used these numbers to tell a different story: 85% of the infected respondents wore masks “always” or “often,” they say — so what good are masks!
“There’s nothing in this (report) that indicates that mask wearing is associated with more coronavirus,” Texas A&M University-Texarkana virologist Ben Neuman told PolitiFact of the report. “Honestly, I don’t even know how that could be possible.”
And yet, here we are: The only way to conclude from this report that mask wearing is ineffective is through a misreading of the numbers. And boy, the Internet is chock full of that.
One Facebook post on Monday that was shared nearly a thousand times claimed of the report, “This means that people who wear masks, are actually ‘collecting’ the virus in their masks” and “A clear indication there is a correlation to more infected people wearing masks than those who do not.”
Facebook flagged the post as “false information,” but it was hardly the only one.
Former TV journalist Ben Swann, for example, falsely said on his platform Truth In Media Tuesday that “that’s what this study seems to be showing, that those who always wear the face masks or often wear the face masks seem to be putting themselves at more of a risk for contracting a virus. The study does not explain to us why this is.”
“We know the masks don’t protect you…” said popular anti-masker Justin Hart of the report, “but at some point you have to wonder if they are PART of the problem.”
So the CDC just reported that 70% of those who came down with #COvId19 symptoms had been wearing a mask. We know the masks don’t protect you… but at some point you have to wonder if they are PART of the problem. pic.twitter.com/jknfZBqGxC
— Justin Hart (@justin_hart) October 11, 2020
Some just selectively left out the crucial context in the report: Non-COVID patients reported more mask-wearing, but more importantly, less attendance at restaurants and proximity to sick people!
CDC COVID study found that 70.6% of the cases in their study came from people who report "always" wearing a mask, 14.4% from those who report only sometimes wear a mask, 7.2% for those who rarely wear one and only 3.9% of cases came from people who report never wearing a mask. pic.twitter.com/5Co7NVt96Y
— Robby Starbuck (@robbystarbuck) October 13, 2020
The Tuscon-area radio host Garret Lewis said it was “pathetic” that no lawmakers had misread the study as badly as he did.
Even after the @CDCgov reports it’s mask study showing masks don’t stop you from getting COVID, not one Arizona lawmaker, Democrat and Republican, has taken this to publicly challenge Ducey. Pathetic. https://t.co/Uk74zDnxC2
— Garret Lewis (@GarretLewis) October 13, 2020
The website California Globe went even further: “It turns out that most everyone infected with COVID-19 ‘always’ wore masks, according to a newly published study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention,” editor Katy Grimes wrote, after fretting about “maskne” and “mask mouth.”
Even the anti-government activist Ammon Bundy, in an interview with TPM Thursday about his army of anti-public-health protesters, brought up the bunk talking point.
“There’s a tremendous amount of conflicted data there, including one that just came from the CDC, that identifies — this is their own report — that 70-plus percent of the people who died always wore masks in public!” he said.
For all of the nonsense surrounding this report, its conclusion is simple, and the exact opposite of what Trump and others have cited it to say: “Exposures and activities where mask use and social distancing are difficult to maintain, including going to locations that offer on-site eating and drinking, might be important risk factors for SARS-CoV-2 infection.”