There’s No ‘New Evidence’ Face Masks Pose Health Risks to Healthy People During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Claim

"New evidence" shows that wearing a face mask can "help coronavirus enter the brain" and "pose more health risk."

Rating

Not True

Reporting

On May 18 2020, ScienceTimes.com posted a story with a frightening and shocking headline: “New Evidence Shows Wearing Face Mask Can Help Coronavirus Enter the Brain and Pose More Health Risk, Warn Expert.” The page picked up quite a lot of traffic and attention before it was quietly revised — but traces of the original remained on Facebook and Twitter and spread through secondary sources:

The original headline on the page contained the claim that “new evidence” had emerged showing that not only were face masks not helpful for “healthy people,” but that they could act as vectors to make people ill, because they could “trap” viral particles of SARS-CoV-2 and somehow force them into “the brain.”

The blog post claimed in part:

Dr. Russell Blaylock, a retired U.S. neurosurgeon and author, cautions that face masks cannot entirely protect you from getting sick and catching pathogens. He adds that it can also pose a serious health risk for wearers. He stresses that only ill people should wear face masks.

Since the coronavirus pandemic started, people everywhere have been wearing protective equipment such as face masks, face shields, and gloves. Wearing gloves in public places such as the grocery had been previously debunked as ‘unhelpful’ or possibly harmful, especially if not used properly.

[…]

According to Dr. Blaylock, there have been no studies conducted to establish that either a cloth mask or the N95 mask has an impact on the transmission of the coronavirus. It was not until recently that the Commission on Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidelines for wearing face masks.

Previously, they only advised sick people to wear protective masks, but now they encourage everyone to wear them when out in public since it has been found out that some could be asymptomatic carriers of the virus. The CDC also has guidelines for wearing cloth masks to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Early on in the post, its author (identified only as “Staff Reporter”) claimed that “wearing gloves in public places … had been previously debunked.” No citation or supporting information was provided in concert with that statement, nor even a reference to previous material on the same website.

Subsequently, ScienceTimes.com claimed that the “Commission on Disease Control and Prevention” had “changed its guidelines” regarding face masks and the COVID-19 pandemic.

We feel compelled to point out here that there is no such entity as the “Commission on Disease Control and Prevention.” It seems likely that “Staff Reporter” presumably meant to write “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” commonly called the CDC, and bungled the widely referenced organization’s name — which did not bode well for the editing and fact-checking of the rest of the article.

The next section of the post (“Harmful Effects of Wearing a Face Mask”) claimed, in part:

Another study reported findings of headache in health professionals using the same protective face mask. Similarly, pregnant women wearing N-95 masks were also found to have breathing difficulties associated with the use of the mask.

Researchers suggest that the benefits of using N95 masks to prevent contraction of infectious diseases should be weighed against possible respiratory consequences linked with extended use of N95 masks.

Newer evidence also reveals that the coronavirus may enter the brain in some cases. By wearing a mask, viruses released upon expiration will not be given a chance to escape and will further congregate in the nasal passages. This allows the virus to enter the olfactory nerves and travel further, eventually reaching the brain.

The sentence about “newer evidence also reveals that the coronavirus may enter the brain in some cases” contained a hyperlink, which implied that it led to additional information that substantiated the claim that using face masks would somehow force viral particles into the brain and “viruses released upon expiration will not be given a chance to escape and will further congregate in the nasal passages.” (Whatever that might mean.)

However, the link instead led to a New York Times‘ Science section, incidentally also called “the Science Times.” It was an April 1 2020 article headlined, “Some Coronavirus Patients Show Signs of Brain Ailments,” and no part of it involved the prophylactic use of face masks — or any reference to face masks at all.

The New York Times article began, reporting early findings involving neurological complications observed in patients diagnosed with COVID-19:

Neurologists around the world say that a small subset of patients with Covid-19 are developing serious impairments of the brain.

Although fever, cough and difficulty breathing are the typical hallmarks of infection with the new coronavirus, some patients exhibit altered mental status, or encephalopathy, a catchall term for brain disease or dysfunction that can have many underlying causes, as well as other serious conditions. These neurological syndromes join other unusual symptoms, such as diminished sense of smell and taste as well as heart ailments.

In early March [2020], a 74-year-old man came to the emergency room in Boca Raton, Fla., with a cough and a fever, but an X-ray ruled out pneumonia and he was sent home. The next day, when his fever spiked, family members brought him back. He was short of breath, and could not tell doctors his name or explain what was wrong — he had lost the ability to speak.

The patient, who had chronic lung disease and Parkinson’s, was flailing his arms and legs in jerky movements, and appeared to be having a seizure. Doctors suspected he had Covid-19, and were eventually proven right when he was finally tested.

On [March 31 2020], doctors in Detroit reported another disturbing case involving a female airline worker in her late 50s with Covid-19. She was confused, and complained of a headache; she could tell the physicians her name but little else, and became less responsive over time. Brain scans showed abnormal swelling and inflammation in several regions, with smaller areas where some cells had died.

It was true that article described ways that COVID-19 might, in some cases, directly affect the nervous system (and brains) of those who contract the illness:

“The pattern of involvement, and the way that it rapidly progressed over days, is consistent with viral inflammation of the brain,” Dr. Elissa Fory, a neurologist with Henry Ford Health System, said through an email. “This may indicate the virus can invade the brain directly in rare circumstances.” The patient is in critical condition.

The New York Times also reported that doctors were scrambling to understand how the virus might cause viral inflammation of the brain and other bodily systems. Crucially, that was clearly not due to the proximity of viral matter to the brain and had nothing to do with using face masks to prevent transmission.

In addition to not mentioning masks as a cause or a vector, the linked article thoroughly explained that the neurological effects of COVID-19 were systemic and inflammatory. No part of that reporting suggested that patients in which such effects were observed had viral particles pushed up through their noses into their brains because they wore a mask:

Neurological specialists also say that it is too early to make definitive statements or identify the specific mechanisms by which the new coronavirus is affecting the neurological system.

In one recent paper, Chinese scientists noted that there was some evidence that other coronaviruses were not confined to the respiratory tract and invaded the central nervous system, and the authors speculated that this may potentially play a role in acute respiratory failure in Covid-19.

[Dr. Robert Stevens, a neurologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore who is tracking neurological observations] emphasized that all mechanistic explanations at this point are hypotheses because so little is known: “It could be as simple as low levels of oxygen in the bloodstream,” resulting from respiratory failure, along with an increase in carbon dioxide, which “can have significant impact on the function of the brain, and lead to states of confusion and lethargy,” he said.

Anyone who actually took the time to read the linked article and understood its reporting could plainly see that neurologists were describing a pattern of viral inflammation caused by systemic infection — not a localized “brain infection” because patients were “re-breathing” infected air.

That absolutely preposterous and unscientific statement was addressed broadly during the viral popularity of a disinformation video called Plandemic, featuring Blaylock’s fellow medical disinformation purveyorJudy Mikovits:

In attacking public health measures taken to address the pandemic in the U.S., [Judy] Mikovits wrongly suggests that using masks could lead to people infecting themselves with their own breath. “Wearing the mask literally activates your own virus,” Mikovits said. “You’re getting sick from your own reactivated coronavirus expressions and if it happens to be SARS-CoV-2, then you’ve got a big problem.”

Experts were perplexed by what she meant and said the implication that simply breathing through a mask could lead to self-infection doesn’t square with science.

Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech who studies airborne disease transmission, told us: “If you’re shedding (breathing out) virus, then you’re already infected. Even without a mask, infected people who are shedding virus probably rebreathe some of their own viruses, but there are already billions times more viruses in your body. Hopefully, the mask is protecting other people from your exhalations.”

And Lisa Brosseau, an expert on respiratory protection and infectious diseases and a certified industrial hygienist, said in an email that “viruses are not ‘activated’ by anything,” as Mikovits suggests.

In short, anyone exhaling SARS-CoV-2 has already contracted the virus.

As of May 20 2020, ScienceTimes.com renamed their blog post to “Are Face Masks Effective Against COVID-19? The Pros and the Cons,” likely because HealthFeedback.org had suppressed its spread on Facebook. The site pinned the source of the claim on Russell Blaylock (who is, again, a known medical disinformation purveyor) and pointed out that no actual evidence (new or otherwise) was presented in the blog post:

Blaylock produces no evidence for his claim that wearing a face mask increases the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection in the brain. His statement that the use of face masks leads to serious health risks is also unsupported. While face masks and cloth face coverings do not provide 100% protection from infection, they still play an important role in reducing the risk of disease transmission by reducing the dispersal of infectious droplets containing the virus, which is the main mode of COVID-19 transmission.

Incidentally, while Blaylock’s site found the time to change the post’s title to the “pros and cons” version above, it didn’t manage to correct its sloppy error in referencing CDC guidance. It also did not include any editor’s note, correction, clarification, or any other information suggesting that the page’s headline had been dramatically changed from its original and dangerously misleading claim:

As of May 20 2020, copies and reproductions of Blaylock’s original and false claim — complete with the headline “New Evidence Shows Wearing Face Mask Can Help Coronavirus Enter the Brain and Pose More Health Risk, Warn Expert” — continued to spread in multiple languages. The body of the article appeared largely unchanged, and neither variation presented any such “evidence” (whether it was new or established) which proved — or even hinted — that face masks were harmful or unhelpful in suppressing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.  A secondary claim that “rebreathing” viral particles could infect the mask-wearer with COVID-19 was widely debunked just weeks before, when a video called Plandemic featuring fellow anti-vaccine activist Judy Mikovits sold the same yarn to viewers.

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