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Osterholm: Stop mischaracterizing my comments about face masks

The leading epidemiologist has cleared the air over his previous comments on mask wearing.
Michael Osterholm

Leading epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm has sought to clear the air on his views surrounding face masks, after comments he has previously made regarding their use have been mischaracterized by those for and against mask-wearing alike.

The director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) says he has come in for increasing criticism over statements he's made during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

His name is cited regularly on social media by anti-maskers in arguments about the effectiveness of cloth face coverings, while he has also been criticized by pro-mask site #Masks4All for comments he made to WCCO Radio in May.

During an interview in early May, Osterholm said non-medical cloth masks have "little impact, if any" in preventing the spread of COVID-19, and followed that later in May after Minneapolis enacted a face mask mandate, saying it could do "more harm than good."

But he says these comments are now being mischaracterized and are not being discussed in their full context, namely that he doesn't want people wearing face masks to feel they're invulnerable to the virus, and as such don't follow more effective ways of limiting transmission of the virus, such as social distancing.

He wrote:

"At the outset, I want to make several points crystal clear:

  • I support the wearing of cloth face coverings (masks) by the general public.
  • Stop citing CIDRAP and me as grounds to not wear masks, whether mandated or not.
  • Don't, however, use the wearing of cloth face coverings as an excuse to decrease other crucial, likely more effective, protective steps, like physical distancing
  • Also, don't use poorly conducted studies to support a contention that wearing cloth face coverings will drive the pandemic into the ground. But even if they reduce infection risk somewhat, wearing them can be important."

He also wanted to dispel the notion that he's "anti-mask," referencing a June 2 podcast in which he said he's working with tech leaders to develop a reusable, washable N95 medical-grade mask that does provide more protection from airborne droplets.

"If these masks can become a reality and many, many millions of them made and distributed to the public around the world in the next few months, this could be a real game-changer," he said.

"So anyone who claims I don't think masks are important, they are just plain wrong. I do."

As for cloth masks, he said: "Again, I want to make it very clear that I support the use of cloth face coverings by the general public. I wear one myself on the limited occasions I'm out in public," he adds.

"In areas where face coverings are mandated, I expect the public to follow the mandate and wear them."

Osterholm criticizes CDC guidance

Osterholm says he takes issue with the pronouncements from, among others, the CDC that suggest face masks are a panacea for the virus, referencing "unfortunate" comments made by CDC leaders that the pandemic could be "driven to the ground" if everyone wore masks for 4-6 weeks.

"If this were true, why do we need a vaccine to end this pandemic? Just 'mask our way' to control. When put into this context, it's obvious how the CDC statement is unrealistic and misleading." 

He says science is "ever-evolving" and that that the COVID-19 response should be conducted with the best data available, and not "on popular opinion or even well-meaning movements within the scientific community."

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He says that public health messaging "should include a more precise discussion of the effectiveness of cloth face coverings in preventing transmission of SARS-CoV-2."

"We need to be clear that cloth face coverings are one tool we have to fight the pandemic, but they alone will not end it," he said. "And we need to underscore the key role that physical distancing plays – even when you wear a face covering."

"The messaging that dominates our COVID-19 discussions right now makes it seem that – if we are wearing cloth masks – you're not going to infect me and I'm not going to infect you," he continues.

"I worry that many people highly vulnerable to life-threatening COVID-19 will hear this message and make decisions that they otherwise wouldn't have made about distancing because of an unproven sense of cloth mask security."

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