As Utah records 409 new COVID-19 cases, a BYU researcher says people are misunderstanding mask studies

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A new report from Brigham Young University on the effectiveness of masks against the spread of the coronavirus began with a Facebook fight.

“Two friends ... asked me, ‘Who’s right?’” said Ben Abbott, an ecology professor at BYU.

After reviewing 130 studies completed in recent months, Abbott said he and his students were surprised to find virtually no disagreement: Research shows masks to be overwhelmingly effective at containing the spread of the virus.

”It was just really striking how much consensus there was,” Abbott said. “What I was seeing on social media seemed like it was about 50-50.”

As hospitalizations for COVID-19 continue to rise in Utah — 33 new admissions were reported Monday, with 409 new cases and four deaths — Abbott said the benefits of face coverings are clear. But in reviewing the literature, he said, he’s seen a number of studies being misrepresented on social media.

”Many people are sincerely afraid of [wearing masks] because of misinformation that’s been shared on social media,” Abbott said. “We looked at all of the studies people have been citing on social media with claims that [mask-wearing] decreases oxygen, increases carbon dioxide levels.”

Not one of the cited studies found what anti-maskers asserted they said, Abbott learned.

”It has no basis in science,” he said. “People have been sharing studies they don’t understand.”

The wide agreement among researchers was surprising, Abbott said, because research from earlier epidemics showed masks to be less effective than they are for the coronavirus.

For example, he said, wearing a mask is not as effective for stopping the common cold, or rhinovirus, which is a smaller virus. That’s one reason public health agencies initially advised the public that wearing masks was not thought to be helpful.

That wisdom changed months ago, but the recommendation to mask up doesn’t appear to be convincing everyone. Masks have become a point of contention, with Utah doctors and some local officials calling for a statewide mask mandate, and others protesting even a requirement that students wear masks inside schools.

“We tried to strip all the politics out and focus just on what the science is saying,” Abbott said. “Independently, all these different researchers have come to the same conclusions.”

For example, a study by Goldman Sachs — hardly a radical left institution — showed that if 80% of people consistently wore masks in public, Abbott said, it would be even more effective at slowing the virus than a total shutdown would be.

But he warned Utahns who support mask use not to alienate the people they want to convert. “You don’t convince anybody by telling them how stupid they are,” he said.

Although Utah’s new case number Monday was comparatively low — 409, the smallest increase in nearly a month — the state averaged 612 new cases per day for the past week.

That’s far above Gov. Gary Herbert’s goal of reaching a daily average of fewer than 500 new cases by Aug. 1 to slow the spread before classes resume.

And the 14-day total of hospitalizations is at 462 — the highest since the beginning of the pandemic. There were 199 Utah patients hospitalized Monday, UDOH reported, one fewer than Sunday. In total, 2,066 Utahns have been hospitalized for COVID-19.

For the past week, 9.8% of tests were positive, slightly below Sunday’s one-week average of 10%.

Meanwhile, the four new deaths reported by the Utah Department brought the state’s coronavirus death toll to 247.

The Utahns who died were:

  • A Salt Lake County man, between ages 45 and 64, who died in a hospital.

  • A Salt Lake County man, older than 85, who lived in a long-term care facility.

  • A Utah County man, age 45 to 64, who lived in a long-term care facility.

  • A Weber County man, age 45 to 64, who died in a hospital.

Of 34,526 Utahns who have tested positive for coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic, 21,504 are considered “recovered” — that is, they have survived for at least three weeks after being diagnosed.