Point: Joshua Sharf

In early 2020, a photo of football fans wearing masks during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic circulated widely. Even 100 years ago, people said, they knew that masks work.

That photograph isn’t proof of 1918’s wisdom, but rather of 2020’s ignorance.

In 1920, the American Journal of Public Health published a study asking why widespread masking had virtually no effect on the spread of the disease. It concludes that masks dense enough to filter out the flu made it hard to breathe, forcing air around the edges.

And yet, public health officials are still promoting masks with the same level of overconfidence and lack of humility that has characterized most of their response to COVID from the beginning.

A new state mask mandate is being proposed not from knowledge but from people’s desire to feel safe.

The burden of proof lies squarely on those who would impose such a mandate, its costs, and its enforcement costs on society. Masks’ benefits must clearly and unambiguously outweigh the overall inconvenience and costs. Such proof simply does not exist. Ian Miller of Rational Ground has collected dozens of graphs showing no correlation between mask mandates and case rates, despite their popularity with politicians.

A 2011 study in the Cochrane Library claimed that masks might help reduce the spread of respiratory viruses. By 2020, the updated study concluded with moderate certainty that, “wearing a mask probably makes little or no difference to the outcome of laboratory-confirmed influenza compared to not wearing [one].”

Three prominent studies concur. A Danish study showed no statistically significant effect from masking. Studies in Georgia and Bangladesh showed improvements of roughly one percentage point in transmission, hardly worth the socialization cost to kids or the health costs to adults.

Even then, the public might accept mask mandates if the people imposing them acted like they believed they worked. Politicians and health officials from Denver, Chicago, California, Washington, D.C., Florida, and beyond have flouted their own restrictions. They berated the maskless Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and lauded the maskless Lollapalooza concert.

And cities’ rules are weird and inconsistent. Film crews and the Met Gala’s Beautiful People got a pass, even as restaurants shut down and staff remained masked. Regular businesses in Denver must have a mask-or-vax policy, but people attending DCPA or Ball Arena must mask and vax.

Indeed, it looks as though those pushing mask mandates are mostly trying to cover for their own mistakes. They note Colorado’s hospital system is operating dangerously close to capacity, with over 90% of ICU and acute care beds in use.

But we also lost 600 of 9,400 acute care beds and 200 of 1700 ICU beds to staffing shortages caused in large part by vaccine mandates for hospital workers.

The mandate was imposed despite studies from New York and the UK showing that COVID transmission in hospitals was low, and came mostly from patients, not staff. With those beds, usage rates would drop into the low-to-mid 80s.

Make no mistake — the vaccines are modern-day miracles. My wife and I got vaccinated as soon as we could. They keep many people out of the hospital, which is a huge win. But because of the nature of coronaviruses, they will not “end COVID.” Just like vaccines, the benefits of masks have been vastly oversold to the public.

What can help is increasing access to monoclonal antibodies and treatments up for imminent FDA approval, and making sure that the elderly and others most at risk are encouraged to get vaccinated.

The Wuhan coronavirus is serious business. I know people who’ve been hospitalized with it, smart people who still suffer from its brain fog and fatigue. Friends of mine have died from it.

That’s not a reason to wear masks. It’s a reason to do things that work.

Counterpoint: Judith Shlay

Mask mandates work!

Efforts are needed to mitigate the surge in COVID-19 cases in our state and address capacity issues in our hospital systems across Colorado.

The most recent modeling report from the Colorado School of Public Health identifies, “immediate increases in transmission control measures such as mask wearing” as a strategy for reducing future hospital demand. Six states have statewide mask orders — Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington — and all but New Mexico have case rates lower than Colorado’s.

In the face of unprecedented challenges presented by the COVID-19 surge to the capacity of hospital systems across Colorado, local public health leaders across the Denver metro region have implemented a regional approach to stop the spread of COVID-19 and protect threatened hospital capacity.

Efforts include the implementation of public health orders related to masking in public indoor settings and vaccine verification. The highest rates of COVID-19-related hospitalization are in counties outside the metro area. A statewide public health order would provide consistent messaging to all residents of our state that masks are important to alleviate the strain on our hospital systems and avoid the implementation of crisis care management strategies that hospitals may need to implement with limited capacity.

Consider that during the early stages of the pandemic, many people delayed addressing health care issues when access to care was limited.

Now people need to receive vital services for their heart conditions, diabetes care, cancer treatment, preventive care, and other health-related issues to avoid long-term complications. Hospitals are full not only due to COVID-19 but from all the other health-related issues that were not addressed for more than a year.

Each of us must do our part to assist in reducing the spread of COVID-19 to protect our friends, our families, our community, and our health systems.

First and foremost, each of us need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as well as influenza and other vaccine preventable disease as applicable for our age group. However, protection from COVID-19 with vaccination takes up to six weeks depending on the vaccination choice (protection is achieved two weeks after completion of the two-dose series separated by 3-4 weeks or two weeks after the one-dose vaccination series). Thus, masking will protect all of us from the virus now.

The virus does not respect county lines. As such, we need to consider that masking not only protects ourselves from the virus but others who are compromised due to health-related issues. We must as a society think about the common good of everyone and work collectively to help stop this awful pandemic.

A statewide mask mandate would help our communities alleviate the strain of COVID-19 on our health systems and is urgently needed to protect all of us.

Joshua Sharf is a senior fellow for fiscal policy at the Independence Institute, with degrees in physics, mathematics and finance. Judith C. Shlay, MD, MSPH is the associate director of the Public Health Institute at Denver Health and a professor of family medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Joshua Sharf is a senior fellow for fiscal policy at the Independence Institute, with degrees in physics, mathematics, and finance. Judith C. Shlay, MD, MSPH is the associate director of the Public Health Institute at Denver Health and a professor of family medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

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