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YouTube and Twitter on Aug. 10 temporarily suspended accounts belonging to Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene on grounds they violated the platforms’ policies against spreading COVID-19 misinformation.
The COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, according to a variety of independent research. Breakthrough cases, which are rare yet expected, are not evidence that the vaccines are “failing.”
Masks are an effective tool for limiting the spread of the coronavirus, especially as a means of “source control” and when worn at the community level.
Two outspoken Republican lawmakers were penalized by online platforms Aug. 10 for sharing misinformation about the impact of COVID-19 vaccines and mask-wearing.
Twitter suspended Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., for a week after she falsely claimed that the vaccines were "failing," while YouTube suspended Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., for a week over a since-removed video that made inaccurate claims about the effectiveness of masks.
Greene’s account will be in read-only mode while her suspension lasts, a Twitter spokesperson said. The violating tweet was labeled in accordance with the company’s policy for moderating misleading COVID-19 information, including misleading claims about vaccines and masks.
"The FDA should not approve the covid vaccines," Greene wrote in the Aug. 9 tweet. "There are too many reports of infection & spread of #COVID19 among vaccinated people. These vaccines are failing & do not reduce the spread of the virus & neither do masks."
Paul’s three-minute video violated YouTube’s similar policy on COVID-19 misinformation, which prohibits "claims that wearing a mask is dangerous or causes negative physical health effects" and "that masks do not play a role in preventing the contraction or transmission of COVID-19."
In the video, which remains on alternative platforms, Paul said, "Most of the masks you get over the counter don’t work. They don’t prevent infection." He later claimed "cloth masks don’t work."
The Republican lawmakers responded by criticizing the platforms for taking action against their posts, with Paul calling his ban a "badge of honor." But public health experts told PolitiFact that the claims that earned them their respective suspensions strayed far from the truth.
University of Minnesota Medical School’s Dr. Mark Schleiss told PolitiFact Greene and Paul were "promoting dangerous behaviors that will cost lives."
"These comments reflect a complete lack of perspective and understanding of simple scientific and medical principles," he said.
Schleiss and several other experts disagreed with Greene’s claim that the COVID-19 vaccines allowed for emergency use are "failing" because there have been some breakthrough infections.
"The vaccines are not failing, by any reasonable definition of that word," said Andrew Noymer, associate professor of population health and disease prevention at the University of California, Irvine. "Being vaccinated still affords massive protection."
Greene’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Clinical trials and real-world studies have consistently shown that the available vaccines are effective at protecting against infections and severe symptoms. But no vaccine works 100% of the time when it comes to preventing illness, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says breakthrough infections are expected, in part due to the emergence of new variants.
"We now have, in essence, a new virus," Schleiss said, referring to the more contagious delta variant that’s been driving recent spikes across the country.
Breakthrough cases have been rare, however, according to analyses from the CDC, Kaiser Family Foundation and other organizations. And while the shots are somewhat less protective against delta, they are still highly effective at preventing severe illness and death, experts said.
As of Aug. 2, over 164 million people were fully vaccinated, CDC data shows. Of those, 7,525 people, or less than 0.005%, had breakthrough infections that led to hospitalization or death.
"Fully vaccinated people are much less likely to be hospitalized or die than people with similar risk factors who are not vaccinated," CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund said in a statement.
Meanwhile, fully vaccinated people are largely protected against these serious outcomes, said Cindy Prins, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida. Other experts agreed.
"The incidence of COVID is lower among vaccinated populations versus unvaccinated, and this is a pattern we see in counties and states across the country," Noymer said, pointing to a chart showing a much higher infection rate for unvaccinated people than for recipients of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. "The pattern is even more stark for severely-symptomatic cases."
The experts PolitiFact consulted also disagreed with Paul’s claim that "most of the masks you get over the counter don’t work," as well as his claim that cloth masks are ineffective.
The truth is that masks do work, especially as a method of "source control," or preventing the spread of the virus from one person to another. Each time an infected person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes, they send respiratory droplets into the air that quickly evaporate into tiny airborne particles — unless they are properly wearing a mask, which can reduce that spread.
"The main reason we wear a mask is not to protect ourselves, but to protect others," Schleiss said. In that sense, masks are most effective when everyone wears them, as PolitiFact reported.
Masks can also help to reduce the wearer’s exposure to the coronavirus, according to the CDC. The level of filtration varies based on the type of mask used, experts said.
The N-95 masks recommended in health care settings are most effective in this regard, filtering out at least 95% of airborne particles, Schleiss said. Cloth masks are less effective. But they do provide some protection, and they remain a tool for source control, despite Paul’s claim.
"It’s a lie to say they don’t work," Schleiss said. "All of these interventions have an impact. They aren’t perfect, but that doesn’t mean that they ‘don’t work.’"
"Some barrier protection (i.e. any mask) is better than none," added Noymer, who said the N-95 masks may be more important "as aerosols become more prominent" with the delta variant.
In the video that earned him his suspension from YouTube, Paul cited a pair of studies, one from Denmark and one from Vietnam, as proof of his claim that besides N-95s, "the other masks don’t work." A spokesperson for the senator also pointed to recent comments from a University of Minnesota epidemiologist, who said in an interview that cloth masks are inferior to N-95s.
However, the CDC has addressed both of the studies Paul cited on its website, writing that the Danish study’s findings were "inconclusive," and that the Vietnamese study "had a number of limitations," including the lack of a true control group, exposure to unmasked people in a hospital setting and a setup that had users wash and reuse cloth masks.
Both studies "have been improperly characterized by some sources as showing that surgical or cloth masks offer no benefit," the agency said.
"The Danish study on masks was terrible and was heavily criticized," added Dr. Davidson Hamer, professor of global health and medicine at Boston University.
An author of the Danish study said that it should not be used to discourage mask wearing.
The New York Times, "YouTube suspends Rand Paul for a week over a video disputing the effectiveness of masks," Aug. 11, 2021
The New York Times, "Twitter suspends Marjorie Taylor Greene for 7 days over vaccine misinformation," Aug. 10, 2021
Sen. Rand Paul, "Dr. Rand Paul Blasts YouTube for Continued Censorship," Aug. 10, 2021
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "COVID-19 Vaccine Breakthrough Case Investigation and Reporting," Aug. 5, 2021
Rand Paul on Rumble, "It is Time for Unfiltered News," Aug. 3, 2021
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Key Things to Know About COVID-19 Vaccines," June 25, 2021
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Science Brief: Community Use of Cloth Masks to Control the Spread of SARS-CoV-2," May 7, 2021
The New York Times, "Masks Work. Really. We’ll Show You How," Oct. 30, 2020
PolitiFact, "CDC did not say vaccines are failing or vaccinated people are superspreaders," Aug. 4, 2021
PolitiFact, "Reinfection rates do not tell the whole story about protection against COVID-19," Aug. 2, 2021
PolitiFact, "10 types of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation swirling online, fact-checked," July 26, 2021
PolitiFact, "Joe Biden exaggerates efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines," July 22, 2021
PolitiFact, "Tucker Carlson falsely claims COVID-19 vaccines might not work," April 15, 2021
PolitiFact, "Mask skeptics ask questions. PolitiFact answers," March 16, 2021
PolitiFact, "No, a Danish study didn’t prove wearing masks is ineffective," Dec. 7, 2020
Emailed statement from Twitter, Aug. 11, 2021
Emailed statement from Sen. Rand Paul’s press office, Aug. 11, 2021
Email interview with Kristen Nordlund, spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Aug. 11, 2021
Email interview with Cindy Prins, assistant dean for educational affairs and clinical associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida College of Public Health & Health Professions, Aug. 11, 2021
Email interview with Dr. Mark Schleiss, professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Aug. 11, 2021
Email interview with Andrew Noymer, associate professor of population health and disease prevention at the University of California, Irvine, Aug. 11, 2021
Email interview with Dr. Davidson Hamer, professor of global health and medicine at Boston University School of Public Health and School of Medicine, Aug. 11, 2021