The Miserable Pseudo-Science Against Face Masks, Social Distancing And Contact Tracing
Updated: Jul 30
During the times of lockdowns and restrictions to our day to day lives, due to the current Covid-19 pandemic, voices arise, questioning the effectiveness of the measures implemented by governments around the world. In our very first misinformation alert on social media, we made an attempt to shed light on the jungle
of misinformation that evolved around this topic.
The article in question argues that the three primary tools to condemn the pandemic, namely face masks, social distancing and contact tracing, are without any scientific foundation. To support this point, the author provides incomplete or misleading information and elaborates on claims without providing any sources at all. But let’s have a look at the author's claims.
The first claim is that face masks do not actually protect the wearer from a possible infection. This statement is true for cloth masks and surgical masks. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) explains that face masks are supposed to contain the wearer's potentially infectious respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks and to limit the spread of the virus. This practice is known as source control, which means that the spread of the virus is interrupted at the earliest stage, namely the potential spreader itself. This method is not used to control the population, as the author suggests, but rather because an infected person can spread the virus without exhibiting symptoms. The evidence on asymptomatic infections (a person infecting others without exhibiting symptoms over the course of the disease) is mixed. It is however, well documented, that people can infect others while incubating the virus.
N95 respirators, a thicker type of mask, on the other hand, does protect the wearer from potential aerosol infection. However, the CDC recommends the use of cloth face masks for the public, since surgical masks and N95 respirators are needed for professional usage and the use by the general public could lead to a shortage of supply.
The overall effectivity of cloth face masks depends mainly on individual application. It is determined by factors such as the layers of cloth and the fit of the masks. One layered, loose fitting masks are less effective in containing aerosols than multiple layered, tight fitting masks. It is true that simple homemade cloth masks do not prevent aerosols from getting into the air, but as a video of the Florida Atlantic University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science shows, even those can significantly reduce the distance the aerosols can travel through the air.
The two arguments the author makes against face masks for non-infected people are that they increase the intake of CO2 and put stress on the lung and chest muscles while breathing. There is no evidence that wearing face masks can cause low oxygen levels. Masks are actually designed to be worn all day by professionals, for example, in hospitals or from dentists. The only potentially problematic scenario is when people with preexisting lung diseases wear personal protective equipment (PPE) such as a N95 respirator, over a long period of time. In this case it is recommended to talk to a doctor and discuss problems and a workaround for them.
With regards to social distancing the author claims that there is no scientific foundation of the 2 meter/6 feet rule that is implemented in many countries around the world. There are studies that examine the effect of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI) such as social distancing. The study concludes that early and sustained NPIs were strongly associated with less severe outcomes during the 1918 influenza pandemic in the US. We have to face the fact that even harsh NPIs are unlikely to prevent a pandemic or to change the susceptibility of the population to the virus. However, NPIs in the past have proven to be able to buy some time for researchers to find a vaccine and decrease the burden on the public health sector. Therefore, NPIs can counteract a rapid proliferation and by that decrease mortality rates.
The CDC admits that “data are limited to precisely define the prolonged exposure”. Therefore the 2-meter rule has to be viewed as a rule of thumb, that fits the daily use and makes it possible to sort of get back to a normal daily life. Studies showed that SARS-Cov-2 aerosols can travel up to 4 meters indoors. This means that if anything the current 2-meter rule is too unambitious. But as mentioned numerous times already the wearing of face masks does decrease the probability of infection by a significant amount and reduces the distance the aerosols travel by a lot. The 2-meter rule therefore has to be seen as a compromise to keep people safe and simultaneously make some sort of daily life possible. The degree of social distancing varies from country to country. It ranges from 1 meter (South Korea) over 1.5 meters (Germany) to 2 meters (UK). More distance means a lower risk of infection, but also more economic drawbacks. Yet also social distancing with a 1 meter rule can be effective if it is complemented with other safety measures like mandating the use of face masks. The mere effectiveness of social distancing to counter a virus that is mainly transmitted by droplet infection is a matter of common sense.
With that said the real purpose of social distancing is likely not to curtail social and economic interaction as the author suggests. The historical evidence suggests that NPIs are linked to less severe outcomes. Besides, what use would be a limitation of economic interaction for a government, since that heavily impacts taxes, the government’s main source of income?
The author’s main arguments against contact tracing are that the spread is already too advanced for contact tracing to be effective, that the tracing institution lacks trustworthiness and that the definition of “contact” is without scientific evidence.
The concern that the spread of Covid-19 is already too advanced is valid in the scenario described by the author, where the government has to do the contact tracing manually. With contact tracing being done by a human workforce, the amount of time and resources that needs to be put in is tremendous. To cope with this burden governments around the world release (voluntary) tracing apps. They track the people who have contact with each other and store the encrypted data either centralized or even decentralized. With this, no one can conclude your identity provided the data is stored on centralized servers in the first place. In times of social media, one should think twice if the encrypted data that is used and (for a short period of time) stored is a larger interference in someone’s privacy than the large-scale storage of personal data for commercial reasons by tech giants like Google.
A study about the effectiveness of different measures to contain the spread of the virus, including contact tracing, comes to the conclusion that the most effective way of handling the pandemic is to combine multiple measures at the same time. For manual tracing the efficiency is constraint by the ability to identify as many contacts as possible, since a large percentage of contacts would need to be identified to reduce the reproduction rate below one. For an app-based tracing method the constraint lies within the coverage. To reduce reproduction below 1 a large percentage of the population would need to download the app.
With encrypted, decentralized data storage used by tracing apps, the responsibility of tracing is also taken from government institutions, eliminating the ever so small chance of arbitrary treatment. With this shift of responsibility, the interference in the tracing process by untrustworthy individuals is effectively excluded, since a conclusion from the encrypted data on an actual person is impossible.
The criticism that the 2-meter rule lacks scientific evidence has already been discussed in the preceding paragraph. The 2-meter rule is to be taken as a rule of thumb for general public, rather than a scientific hard fact.
To end this post, I want to encourage every reader to fact check any claim before taking it at face value, especially for topics where misinformation can cause harm to yourself or others. Therefore, we try to facilitate this process by providing you with the true information, backed by credible sources as good as we can. With this: stay healthy and informed!
Written by: Julius Gaiser