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We could not locate a study that ranked the various methods for mitigating spread of the coronavirus.
But experts agree that mask wearing is a primary way to do so, albeit in conjunction with other steps, such as hand-washing, social-distancing and -- now that vaccines are available -- getting a shot
More than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, debate remains around a central means of combating the spread of COVID-19: To wear or not to wear a mask.
At least the debate still exists among the general public and some politicians. Science and public health experts have pretty much all come down on one side: Mask up.
That’s where newly-elected Superintendent of Public Instruction Jill Underly fell when asked for her opinion on school mask requirements during an interview April 11, 2021 on WISN’s "UpFront."
"As far as mitigating spread, they say that masks is the number one way to do so," Underly said. "And I feel that is, that's what we need to do to keep our buildings open. I think we should be wearing masks. But again, that's my recommendation, I believe in the science. But I do feel that each school district is going to have to make that decision for themselves."
Underly made the comment at a point when thousands of students in Milwaukee Public Schools and the Madison Metropolitan School District were returning to the classroom, at least on a hybrid basis, for the first time since the pandemic began. Most other other districts in the state had been operating in person for months, some from the start of the school year last fall.
Still, there has been pushback against the decisions, including by the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, the teacher’s union, which has questioned the safety of returning to in-person learning.
Let’s focus on Underly’s claim about mask’s being the best way to mitigate COVID-19 spread.
In February, we rated True a claim by Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, that "we know mask mandates work. There’s enough evidence out there between counties that have done it and counties that haven’t."
Nothing has changed since then in terms of the science behind the effectiveness of masks.
But what about Underly’s claim that masks rank at the top of the mitigation list?
When asked for backup for the claim, Erin Forrest of Underly’s transition team emailed a list of articles and studies related to the science behind masks, including a University of California San Francisco June 26, 2020 paper "Still Confused About Masks? Here’s the Science Behind How Face Masks Prevent Coronavirus" and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration "Face Masks, Including Surgical Masks, and Respirators for COVID-19."
"It’s also important to note that right now there is no vaccine approved for people under 16 years of age," Forrest said in an email to PolitiFact Wisconsin.
But she did not cite any study that ranked the various methods for mitigating spread of the coronavirus. We could not find any either in our search.
That said, experts agree that mask wearing is a primary way to do so, albeit in conjunction with other steps, such as hand-washing, social-distancing and -- now that vaccines are available -- getting a shot.
Ajay Sethi, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told us wearing a properly fitted mask is "imperative."
"Both masks and physical distancing are needed to interrupt transmission of the coronavirus in indoor environments," Sethi said in an email to PolitiFact Wisconsin. "When food or drink is being served for consumption, then maintaining proper physical distance is imperative. When maintaining physical distance is challenging, then wearing a high quality, properly fit mask is imperative. Ideally, both wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing are being done together."
City of Milwaukee Health Commissioner Kirsten Johnson told us: "Masking is at the top of the list for the Milwaukee Health Department. Combined with vaccination, that is the best way to stop COVID."
That point is echoed in numerous other places.
Harvard Medical School puts mask wearing at the top of its list of steps individuals can take. Yale Medicine includes it on its list, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance April 6, 2021on improving the fit and filtration of masks that included this note: "Correct and consistent mask use is a critical step everyone can take to reduce their risk of getting and spreading COVID-19."
Finally, the World Health Organization, in a Q&A posted on its website, notes that "masks are a key measure to suppress transmission and save lives."
The website goes on to say:
"Masks should be used as part of a comprehensive ‘Do it all!’ approach including physical distancing, avoiding crowded, closed and close-contact settings, good ventilation, cleaning hands, covering sneezes and coughs, and more."
Underly said for mitigating COVID-19 spread, "masks (are) the number one way to do so."
Experts at the local, national (CDC) and international (WHO) level, all say that masks are vital to lowering the risk of spreading COVID-19. That said, they also note simply wearing a mask is not enough and that other mitigation strategies, such as vaccination, social distancing and hand washing are also important.
And, for the most part, students cannot be vaccinated. The vaccines are only available to those 16 and older.
We rate Underly’s claim Mostly True.
PolitiFact: Mask skeptics ask questions. PolitiFact answers
WISN "UpFront" Jill Underly, April 11, 2021
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Wisconsin Supreme Court overturns statewide mask mandate, blocks Evers from declaring multiple emergency orders," March 31, 2021
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Wisconsin’s mask mandate is over. But if you’re in a Milwaukee area school you still need to wear one,"April 5, 2021
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Wisconsin Supreme Court overturns statewide mask mandate blocks Evers from declaring multiple emergency orders," March 31, 2021
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "These Wisconsin cities and counties have their own mask mandates," April 5, 2021
World Health Organization, "Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Masks," Dec. 1, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "Improve the fit and filtration of your mask to reduce the spread of COVID-19," April 6, 2021
University of California San Francisco, "Still Confused About Masks? Here’s the Science Behind How Face Masks Prevent Coronavirus, June 26, 2020
U.S. Food and Drug Administration "Face Masks, Including Surgical Masks, and Respirators for COVID-19."
Email, Ajay Sethi, epidemiologist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, April 14, 2021.
Email, City of Milwaukee Health Department, Kirsten Johnson, via spokesman Jeff Fleming, April 14, 2021.
Email, Erin Forrest, Department of Public Instruction transition, April 23, 2021.
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