This story was produced by Kaiser Health News in partnership with PolitiFact.
A popular Facebook and blog post by conservative radio host Buck Sexton claims scientific research indicates life should return to normal now despite the persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Here’s what the science tells anyone who is being honest about it: open the schools, stop wearing masks outside, and everyone at low risk should start living normal lives. Not next fall, or next year — now,” reads the blog post, posted to Facebook on Feb. 8.
The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about PolitiFact’s partnership with Facebook.)
KHN-PolitiFact messaged Sexton via his Facebook page to ask if he could provide evidence to back up the statement but got no response.
So we reviewed the scientific evidence and talked to public health experts about Sexton’s post. Overall, they disagreed, noting the ways in which it runs counter to current public health strategies.
Let’s take it point by point.
‘Opening the schools’
In March, when government and public health leaders realized the novel coronavirus was spreading throughout the U.S., many public institutions — including schools — were ordered to shut down to prevent further spread. Huge numbers of students finished the 2020 spring semester remotely. Some jurisdictions did choose to reopen schools in fall 2020 and spring 2021, though others have remained remote.
Throughout the pandemic, researchers have studied whether in-person learning at schools contributes significantly to the spread of COVID-19. The findings have shown that if K-12 schools adhere to mitigation measures — masking, physical distancing and frequent hand-washing — then there is a relatively low risk of transmission.
And getting kids back into the classroom is a high priority for the Biden administration.
In a Feb. 3 White House press briefing, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said data suggests “schools can safely reopen.” The CDC on Feb. 12 released guidance on how schools should approach reopening. It recommends the standard risk-mitigation measures, as well as universal masking, contact tracing, creating student learning cohorts or pods, conducting testing and monitoring community transmission of the virus.
Susan Hassig, associate professor of epidemiology at Tulane University, said science shows that schools can open safely if “mitigation measures are implemented and maintained in the school space.”
Here’s some of the latest research that tracks with these positions:
Only seven COVID-19 cases out of 191 were traced to in-school spread in 17 rural K-12 Wisconsin schools that had high mask-wearing compliance and were monitored over the 2020 fall semester.
Mississippi researchers found most coronavirus in children and teenagers were associated with gatherings outside of households and a lack of consistent mask use in schools, but not associated with merely attending school or child care.
Thirty-two cases were associated with attending school out of 100,000 students and staff members in 11 North Carolina schools, where students were required to wear masks, practice physical distancing and wash hands frequently.
Of course, there are some limitations to these studies, which often rely on contact tracing, a process that can’t always pinpoint where cases originate. Some of the studies also rely on self-reporting of mask-wearing by individuals, which could be inaccurate.
Additionally, Hassig pointed out that not all school districts have the resources, such as physical space, personnel or high-quality masks, to open safely.
Sexton’s assertion that schools can reopen leaves out a key piece of information: that safe reopening is highly dependent upon use of mitigation measures that have been shown to tamp down on virus spread.
‘Stop wearing masks outside’
Because the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is relatively new, the research on outdoor mask use is limited. But so far science has shown that masks prevent virus transmission.
The CDC study published Feb. 10 reported that a medical procedure mask (commonly known as a surgical mask) blocked 56.1% of simulated cough particles. A cloth mask blocked 51.4% of cough particles. And the effectiveness went up to 85.4% if a cloth mask was worn over a surgical mask.
Another experiment from the study showed that a person in a mask emits fewer aerosol particles that can be passed on to an unmasked person. And if both are masked, then aerosol exposure to both is reduced by more than 95%. A multitude of reports also show more generally that mask-wearing is effective at reducing the risk of spreading or catching other respiratory diseases.
Sexton’s post, however, advised that people should stop wearing masks outside. To be sure, public health experts agree the risk of transmitting coronavirus is lower outdoors than indoors. But the experts also said that doesn’t mean people should stop wearing masks.
“The wind might help you a bit outside, but you are still at risk of breathing in this virus from people around you,” said Dr. Rachel Vreeman, director of the Arnhold Institute for Global Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Being outside is “not a guarantee of safety,” reiterated Stephen Morse, an epidemiology professor at Columbia University Medical Center. “Especially when those people without masks are close together.”
The CDC addressed the issue of whether masks are needed outside in the agency’s mask guidelines: “Masks may not be necessary when you are outside by yourself away from others, or with other people who live in your household. However, some areas may have mask mandates while out in public, so please check for the rules in your local area.”
Overall, the prevailing scientific opinion is that, while it may be OK to go maskless outside if you are physically distant from others, mask-wearing is still recommended if you are around others.
‘Everyone at low risk should start living normal lives’
All the public health experts we consulted agreed this part of the claim is absolutely false. It flies in the face of what scientists recommend should be done to get through the pandemic.
While it’s unclear what exactly the post means by “low-risk” people, let’s assume it’s referring to younger people or those without health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19. And that “living normal lives” refers to no longer wearing masks, physical distancing or washing hands with increased frequency.
News reports and scientific evidence show that bars, parties and other large gatherings can quickly become spreader events. Moreover, even young people and those without preexisting health conditions have gotten severely ill with COVID-19 or died of it.
Even if a low-risk person doesn’t get severely sick, they could still infect others in higher-risk groups.
The sentiment of this post is similar to calls early in the pandemic to let life return to normal in an attempt to achieve herd immunity. But, on the way to achieving that goal, many would die, said Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“Everyone going back to ‘normal’ right now, especially in the presence of more transmissible and more deadly variants, would be a recipe for further public health disasters on top of what we’ve already experienced,” he added.
Already almost half a million Americans have died of COVID-19.
The push to “return to normal” is precisely what let the new variants form and multiply, said Vreeman. “If we can ramp up getting people vaccinated and keep wearing masks in the meantime, only then will we have a chance at getting back to ‘normal.’”
Indeed, because of the new variants circulating in the U.S., Walensky and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have urged Americans not to relax their efforts to control the virus’s spread.
A blog post by conservative talk show host Buck Sexton claims scientific evidence shows that right now we should “open the schools, stop wearing masks outside, and everyone at low risk should start living normal lives.”
Scientific research shows that in order for schools to reopen safely, risk mitigation measures must be put in place, such as requiring masks, rigorous hand-washing and limiting the number of students in classrooms. These changes, though, would not represent a return to normal, but a new normal for students and teachers.
The remainder of Sexton’s statement strays further from current science. Research indicates that you’re safer outdoors than indoors, but public health experts still recommend wearing masks in public, even outside. Science does not support the idea that the time is right for some people to resume life as normal. That would allow the virus to continue to spread and have a large human cost in hospitalizations and deaths, said the experts.
Sexton’s post is inaccurate. We rate it False.