Face masks: what the data say
When her Danish colleagues first suggested distributing protective cloth face masks to people in Guinea-Bissau to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Christine Benn wasn’t so sure.
“I said, ‘Yeah, that might be good, but there’s limited data on whether face masks are actually effective,’” says Benn, a global-health researcher at the University of Southern Denmark in Copenhagen, who for decades has co-led public-health campaigns in the West African country, one of the world’s poorest.
That was in March. But by July, Benn and her team had worked out how to possibly provide some needed data on masks, and hopefully help people in Guinea-Bissau. They distributed thousands of locally produced cloth face coverings to people as part of a randomized controlled trial that might be the world’s largest test of masks’ effectiveness against the spread of COVID-19.
Face masks are the ubiquitous symbol of a pandemic that has sickened 35 million people and killed more than 1 million. In hospitals and other health-care facilities, the use of medical-grade masks clearly cuts down transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But for the variety of masks in use by the public, the data are messy, disparate and often hastily assembled. Add to that a divisive political discourse that included a US president disparaging their use, just days before being diagnosed with COVID-19 himself. “People looking at the evidence are understanding it differently,” says Baruch Fischhoff, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who specializes in public policy. “It’s legitimately confusing.”
To be clear, the science supports using masks, with recent studies suggesting that they could save lives in different ways: research shows that they cut down the chances of both transmitting and catching the coronavirus, and some studies hint that masks might reduce the severity of infection if people do contract the disease.
But being more definitive about how well they work or when to use them gets complicated. There are many types of mask, worn in a variety of environments. There are questions about people’s willingness to wear them, or wear them properly. Even the question of what kinds of study would provide definitive proof that they work is hard to answer.
“How good does the evidence need to be?” asks Fischhoff. “It’s a vital question.”
A medical device that is used to inject fluid into, or withdraw fluid from, the body. A medical syringe consists of a needle attached to a hollow cylinder that is fitted with a sliding plunger. The downward movement of the plunger injects fluid; upward movement withdraws fluid. Medical syringes were once made of metal or glass, and required cleaning and sterilization before they could be used again. Now most syringes used in medicine are plastic and disposable.