The CDC Doesn’t Deserve Trust on Masks

Young Voices Contributors, How can it possibly be that, 16 months into the scramble to “flatten the curve,” the CDC still hasn’t exhausted its credit to make irrational mask recommendations?

To be fair, we all suspected mask mandates weren’t over — a hunch it took the CDC all of three months to confirm. But it’s worse than we could have imagined. Now the agency is directing fully vaccinated individuals to mask up indoors. And it’s also recommended that schools institute universal masking for students, staff, and visitors.

This is ridiculous. It’s high time we buck the CDC’s arbitrary regulations and follow our own common sense.

This isn’t our first rodeo. For public health, 2020 was the year of selective presentation. Remember Dr. Anthony Fauci’s infamous utterance in March 2020: “There is no reason to be walking around with a mask.” Yes, he actually said that, though today he claims the comment was intended to prevent a mask shortage. We could ponder the ethical implications of Fauci’s lying to the entire country, but it would really be a waste of time because just one month later, the CDC pulled a policy 180, contradicting Fauci.

In April 2020, Fauci urged us to wear cloth masks. Then masks were off-again-on-again for the vaccinated for a while. All this was exacerbated by early blunders in testing, the hypocrisy of elected officials in flouting mask mandates, and Fauci’s self-admitted moving goalposts on herd immunity, which certainly haven’t helped public confidence.

Yet surprisingly, a May 2021 survey found 52 percent of respondents trust the CDC a great deal, though only 37 percent say the same for the NIH.

How do we still have so much faith in Fauci?

Confusion about masks is understandable, as the science really isn’t there to support sweeping recommendations or mandates. Before the pandemic, studies about mask-wearing were mostly limited to healthcare settings and focused on influenza, rhinovirus, and other coronaviruses. These studies have not found conclusive benefits to mask-wearing. Studies also tend to use surgical masks, leaving the efficacy of cloth masks an open question.

Finally, there comes the tricky question of achieving an objective study design. The randomized control trial (RCT), the “gold standard,” for epidemiological studies, is infrequently done with masks and COVID. Randomly assigning some participants to not wear masks is widely considered unethical in the context of the pandemic, as not wearing a mask might cause the participant to be infected or infect those they come into contact with. The first RCT of mask-wearing, though with many limitations, showed the protective effect of masks was statistically indistinguishable from zero.

Although RCTs are uncommon, modeling, laboratory tests, and observational studies abound. For instance, a CDC study used a “pliable elastomeric headform,” emitting a stream of potassium chloride particles to measure the percentage of droplets blocked by various types of masks. One observational study of mask-wearing symptomatic hairdressers and their clients found that all 67 clients tested (out of 139) were negative.

I’m not convinced that laboratory tests effectively simulate real-life conditions, nor are observational studies immune to bias and confounding variables. For example, in the hairdressing outbreak, some asymptomatic cases may have been overlooked because only a subset of clients were tested. And social distancing has been recommended concurrently with mask-wearing, so it’s almost always a confounding variable in real-world situations.

The unabashed confidence with which the CDC makes its recommendations, this time based on a single, albeit concerning, outbreak in Provincetown, is hardly justified given the ambiguous evidence about the efficacy of masks, overwhelming evidence that the vaccinated are still protected from serious illness, and disregard for the harmful effects of masks. It’s almost as if the CDC, FDA, and NIH are acting as politically-minded bureaucrats than level-headed scientists.

The states that rescinded their mask mandates, or never had one, should resist irrational guidance issued in the name of “science.” The unelected bureaucracy of the CDC and other public health agencies has long since exhausted its credibility. From on-again-off-again mask guidance to extending the eviction moratorium after the Supreme Court required congressional authorization, it’s no wonder people are starting to see through the scientific veneer into the political heart of these agencies.

The role of public health agencies in a health crisis should be to give facts to the best of their knowledge and to apologize when they get it wrong. Aside from that, it should be up to each individual to make their own choices. Public health experts are not inherently more logical or intelligent than the public, and the wide availability of source information means they should be held accountable for selectively choosing their facts to fit an agenda. We can’t trust the CDC anymore — not until it steps back, presents the data objectively, and allows individuals to choose what makes sense for them.

This piece was authored by Sarah Montalbano.

Sarah Montalbano is the Research Associate at Alaska Policy Forum and a contributor to Young Voices. Her writing can be found in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and the Anchorage Daily News.