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In many areas, higher rates of masking are a common reaction to higher rates of COVID-19. When there is a high risk of catching or dying from the virus, more people wear masks in order to protect themselves. Masking in itself does not cause deaths.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wear masks as one line of defense against transmission because COVID-19 is transmitted through respiratory droplets. While any mask is better than none, its protective benefit varies by the mask type, make and fit.
We’ve heard repeatedly from health officials that wearing a mask slows the spread of COVID-19 and helps protect people from the virus. But a Facebook post shared a claim that suggests the opposite.
"Study Finds ‘Positive Correlation’ Between Higher Mask Usage And COVID-19 Deaths," reads what looks like an image of a headline shared in a May 17 post. That headline originally came from The National Pulse, a conservative media site, that published a story about a study on masking in Europe.
"Beyond finding no benefit to mask mandate compliance in curtailing the spread of COVID-19, the paper found a ‘moderate positive correlation’ between the use of masks and COVID-19 deaths," the Pulse wrote.
This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
The study cited by the Pulse was titled, "Correlation Between Mask Compliance and COVID-19 Outcomes in Europe." It appeared in the Cureus Journal of Medical Science, an open-access medical journal that promotes post-publication peer review, a process that critics say is unusually speedy compared with other scientific journals.
Author Beny Spira, a professor in the department of microbiology at the University of Sāo Paulo in Brazil, examined data from 35 European countries on morbidity, mortality, and mask usage during a six-month period from October 2020 to March 2021. Mask usage was measured by the "percent of the population reporting always wearing a mask when leaving home."
The data shown in Spira’s study showed that in countries where reported mask usage was higher — such as Hungary, where the study said that 77% of the population wore masks — there was a higher rate of cases and deaths compared to countries that had lower mask usage.
COVID-19 deaths, he wrote, seemed to rise in Western Europe even though masking was in place. Spira wrote that this seemed to suggest "that the universal use of masks may have had harmful unintended consequences."
In an email interview, Spira told PolitiFact that "there were more deaths in countries that masked more."
But the study stopped short of saying the masks caused deaths, as the post suggests.
"I cannot say that masks caused more deaths as no causation could be inferred from observational studies" Spira said. "Having said that, the correlation was relatively strong, therefore one might conclude that something fishy was going on with masks."
Emily Smith, epidemiologist at George Washington University, said the logic behind the finding is flawed. Masking protocols were put into place because of the high risk of the virus at the time, she said.
"I think we can just use common sense to say that when cases are rising, people are more likely to do protective things," Smith said. "You're more likely to wear a mask when you go out and your city or your country might also have made recommendations or requirements to do those things."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other national public health agencies globally such as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control recommends masks as one line of defense against spread of COVID-19. They recommend masking especially when transmission rates are high, because of the way the virus is transmitted. Any mask provides more protection than no mask, but how protective a face-covering is varies by its type, make and fit, said the CDC. Respirator masks, like N95 or KN95 masks, provide the highest level of protection.
"Because the virus is transmitted predominantly by inhaling respiratory droplets from infected persons, universal mask use can help reduce transmission," the CDC stated in a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published in March 2021. The report, based on data from March to December 2020, stated that mask mandates "were associated with statistically significant decreases in county-level daily COVID-19 cases and death growth rates within 20 days of implementation."
The risk of transmission while wearing a mask depends also on the masking practices of others in the room — so going into a meeting or restaurant where others are unmasked or wearing only cloth masks increases the odds of getting infected.
A Facebook post said there’s a "‘positive correlation’ between higher mask usage and COVID-19 deaths."
The post was referencing a study that reviewed data from 35 European countries and found that in places where mask usage was higher, COVID-19 deaths were also higher. But the study’s author said there was no cause-and-effect found.
Critics of the study said masking protocols were issued in response to high rates of transmission. So it would be expected that deaths would occur while masking would be in place.
Public health officials recommend masking as one way to help reduce transmission..
We rate this claim False.
Facebook post, May 17, 2022
The National Pulse, Study Finds ‘Positive Correlation’ Between Higher Mask Usage And COVID-19 Deaths., May 16, 2022
Cureus, Correlation Between Mask Compliance and COVID-19 Outcomes in Europe, April 19, 2022
PolitiFact, Mask skeptics ask questions. PolitiFact answers, March 16, 2021
PolitiFact, Contrary to Good, masks have been shown to limit COVID spread, Aug. 5, 2021
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Types of Masks and Respirators, Jan. 28, 2022
Health Affairs, Community use of face masks And COVID-19: Evidence from a natural experiment of state mandates in the U,S., June 16, 2020
PubMed, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 12, 2021
Twitter post, Jan. 9, 2022
European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Using face masks in the community: first update Effectiveness in reducing transmission of COVID-19, Feb. 15, 2021
European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Considerations for the use of face masks in the community in the context of the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant of concern, Feb. 7, 2022
Journal of the Royal Society Interface, Face masking and COVID-19: potential effects of variolation on transmission dynamics, May 4, 2022
Email Interview with Professor Beny Spira of the department of microbiology at the University of Sāo Paulo in Brazil, May 19, 2022
Interview with Dr. Emily Smith, epidemiologist and assistant professor at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, May 19, 2022
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