In recent weeks, even in states that have long insisted on the necessity of strict COVID mitigation strategies, the masking regime is crumbling. Following the lead of red states such as Texas and Florida, officials in heavily Democratic areas of California, New Jersey, New York, and elsewhere are finally acknowledging that it’s time to return to normal and rescind many mandates.
The transition won’t be easy, particularly regarding masks, which for many people now serve as talismanic objects signaling one’s public health virtue. It’s difficult for many people to recall that at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, even the experts were inconsistent and lackadaisical about recommending that people wear them. "There’s no reason to be walking around with masks," Dr. Anthony Fauci told 60 Minutes in early March 2020.
By April, however, Fauci and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were recommending universal masking, and elected leaders in many states—particularly deep blue Democratic states—were happy to take their word as gospel and in turn expected their citizens to conform with blind faith. Now that this faith is eroding, it is worthwhile to revisit the claims made about masking by the public health bureaucrats who suddenly found themselves wielding outsize influence over Americans’ lives.
Ian Miller’s new book, Unmasked: The Global Failure of COVID Mask Mandates, a compilation of the statistics-gathering and research he has been doing on COVID masking recommendations since the start of the pandemic, is well-timed. He places the current regime of mask mandates in the context of pre-COVID research on the ineffectiveness of masking and analyzes the many studies since then that purport to prove masking’s effectiveness against COVID. His conclusion is stark: "Despite extraordinary worldwide compliance, the mask experiment resulted in an unequivocal failure."
Miller did not start out a skeptic. Like many people in the early days of the pandemic, as lockdowns and mandates began, "I went in with an open mind, believing that ‘the experts’ knew what they were doing. I assumed that interventions would make a difference and flatten the curve; how could they not?"
And yet, he soon began to question some of the sweeping statements made about the effectiveness of COVID restrictions and began dispassionately analyzing the claims made about masking in particular. Like many Americans, he was surprised by the public health establishment’s rapid about-face on masking and assumed it was based on solid scientific information. As he came to discover, however, "Fauci’s dramatic shift was not based on new evidence because there was no evidence presented to him." It was based, rather, on the political need to be seen to be doing something—anything—to stop the spread of COVID.
It wasn’t only Dr. Fauci. Miller subjects the CDC and its claims about masking to strict scrutiny and finds them wanting. The amount of cherry-picked data and flawed methodologies embraced in CDC studies of masking is astounding. None of the 15 studies the CDC used to justify its claims that masks work are randomized controlled studies, considered the standard for such research. Worse, when randomized controlled studies that were conducted during the pandemic did not bolster the CDC’s masking message, they were downplayed or ignored.
Miller describes one of the few randomized controlled studies of masking of a large population during the pandemic, which occurred in Denmark. "In the best approximation of a gold-standard clinical trial that researchers could design, the results showed absolutely no statistically significant benefit" to masking, Miller writes. The study’s findings "received no major media attention, nor did they generate questions for the expert community that now universally embrace masking."
Again and again, the CDC promoted the results of smaller observational studies in states like Kansas and Arizona that themselves were often flawed. Several studies omitted data from counties without mask mandates and failed to note that case rates rose and fell in those areas at the same rate as they did in counties with mask mandates. Instead, the CDC spent resources on mask propaganda, such as its collaboration with Warner Media "to digitally add masks to characters in famous, successful films to promote acceptance."
Elected leaders did not approach the pronouncements of public health officials with the skepticism some of their claims warranted either. "Politicians have consistently referenced following the experts while determining and implementing interventions," Miller writes. "But very rarely do they present the public with the subsequent data that confirms or argues against the effectiveness of those policies."
And why would they? Mask mandates were an effective tool for politicians in several ways: They provided easy "proof" that one was doing the "right" thing to stop the spread and thus carried symbolic power; the burden of obeying them fell entirely on individual Americans (even as elected officials repeatedly and hypocritically flouted mask mandates when it suited them, such as when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi went to get her hair done or California governor Gavin Newsom dined mask free at the French Laundry); when transmission rates rose, politicians could blame "anti-maskers" for the rise, freeing themselves from any responsibility; and mandates gave public health bureaucrats like Fauci a heady taste of celebrity and political power, which they are clearly loath to surrender.
Elected leaders and public health officials were aided and abetted in this effort by the mainstream media, which uncritically repeated and amplified the message that lockdowns and masking worked, while denouncing as conspiracy theorists anyone who challenged that narrative. Recall that Senator Rand Paul (R., Ky.) was banned from YouTube in 2021 for merely noting that the cloth masks many people wore did little to prevent the spread of the virus—something scientific conventional wisdom would acknowledge a year later. As Miller says in a moment of dramatic understatement, "The wild swings and dismissive attitude to any questioning did not inspire confidence."
No wonder the issue of masking became so politicized. When Florida governor Ron DeSantis (R.) ended all mask mandates and lockdowns last year, Fauci publicly criticized him while praising California’s Newsom for reimposing stricter lockdowns and mask mandates. Yet, as Miller notes, "As Florida reopened and California introduced more significant restrictions culminating in a second lockdown, the percentage of excess deaths in California soared compared with Florida." This was true across the country—as Miller describes, mask mandates did not appreciably alter the course of the pandemic (he acknowledges the challenge of teasing out the effectiveness of masking alone when lockdowns were also in place). The virus rose and fell in similar waves throughout. The only real difference everywhere, once vaccines were widely available, were much higher risks of hospitalization and death among the unvaccinated.
Miller’s focus is on the efficacy claims of the public health experts, but his analysis offers some revealing insights into human nature as well. He reminds us of the important distinction between what research science can prove and what public health guidance (in many cases heavily influenced by politics) demands. "The lack of humility and inability to acknowledge or correct mistakes has proven to be a recurring issue among the expert community," he argues.
This lack of humility fostered a culture wherein any questioning or pushback to the COVID regime was deemed a dangerous conspiracy of science-deniers. Recall the hubristic claim Dr. Fauci made during one of his frequent appearances on MSNBC: "A lot of what you’re seeing as attacks on me quite frankly are attacks on science."
Miller’s book also inadvertently teaches an important civics lesson. Elected officials ceded decision-making responsibilities to health authorities, allowing unelected and unaccountable people to exercise an unusual amount of control over people’s day-to-day lives. Although done under the aegis of a pandemic emergency, such powers, once ceded, can be difficult to claw back.
Science isn’t a thing ("The Science"); it is a process, a method. It demands rigorous proof, skepticism, and a strenuous effort to be objective in the pursuit of results. It is everything our public health establishment and its most outspoken leaders were not during the pandemic.
The pandemic unmasked serious credibility problems with many of our elected leaders and our public health institutions. Long after mask mandates are gone, those challenges will remain.
Unmasked: The Global Failure of COVID Mask Mandates
by Ian Miller
Post Hill Press, 232 pp., $17
Christine Rosen is senior writer at Commentary magazine and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.