COVID-19: The Right-Wing Masks Theory That Lives On in Colorado

Wearing masks in Colorado during the COVID-19 pandemic has become thoroughly politicized, with those loyal to conservative beliefs in the state infinitely more likely to follow President Donald Trump's lead in declining to don facial coverings.

Why? The most common refrain is that mask use infringes on individual choice. But it's often accompanied by claims that facial coverings are actually dangerous to those wearing them, complete with medical assertions that may actually sound reasonable to those of us who aren't doctors or play one on TV. And indeed, assorted officials and physicians have offered occasional support for the theory over recent months.

Trouble is, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, it's utter bullshit.

Here's the crux of the masks-are-dangerous concept, encapsulated in an email to Westword titled "What Freedom Means." In the author's words, "It means 'Freedom not to rebreathe any viruses.' If you have COVID-19 and don't know it, via a mask you will be continually breathing in the viruses your body is shedding, increasing the viral load. Won't matter for healthy people, but some at-risk people with co-morbidities will die due to your support of governmental overreach, you unscientific, fear mongering killer. Use science, not fear mongering."

The notion that mask wearing is counterproductive has been circulating on social media since early in the crisis, and it got a boost in late February from U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who tweeted the following: "Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!"

At first blush, Adams's comment seems to be about the then-current shortage of medical-grade N95 masks for front-line responders. But during an appearance on the Fox News staple Fox & Friends, he suggested that the populace might actually be put in more peril through mask usage.

"You can increase your risk of getting it by wearing a mask if you are not a health-care provider," he said during the March 2 program, when the national death toll from COVID-19 had just surpassed 3,000 (it now exceeds 100,000). He added, "Folks who don't know how to wear them properly tend to touch their faces a lot and actually can increase the spread of coronavirus.... We're certainly seeing more spread in communities, but it's important for folks to know that right now their risk as American citizens remains low. There are things people can do to stay safe. There are things they shouldn't be doing and one of the things they shouldn't be doing in the general public is going out and buying masks."

Cut to mid-March, when Dr. Jenny Harries, England's deputy chief medical officer, contended that wearing face masks can increase an individual's viral load whether one is symptomatic or not. "For the average member of the public walking down a street, it is not a good idea," she argued. "What tends to happen is people will have one mask. They won't wear it all the time, they will take it off when they get home, they will put it down on a surface they haven't cleaned," and if they don't clean their hands often enough, they can get infected by touching either the mask or parts of their face around it.

Of course, washing a cloth mask daily largely eliminates this issue — and that's precisely what Governor Jared Polis recommended on April 3, when he encouraged Coloradans to wear a facial covering whenever they leave home — shortly before the federal Centers for Disease Control and Environment did likewise for the country as a whole.

Nonetheless, the suggestion that mask wearers are slowly killing themselves lives on. But the CDPHE's response to Westword on the subject makes it clear that the department thinks it has approximately zero credibility.

"Masks do not increase the viral load for people who wear them," states spokesperson Ian Dickson. "If you are infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, that means the virus has already made a home for itself in your cells and is busy making more of the virus. 'Shedding' is just a byproduct of that infection."

Dickson adds: "Once you are infected, breathing doesn't result in an increase in the amount of virus in your body, whether you have a mask on or not. Wearing a face mask helps minimize the spread of the virus, so everyone should wear a mask when out in public."

Click to read the CDPHE's mask-use guidance.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts