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Top Biden advisor admits: Many masks “are not very effective”

As always, it is useful to begin these stories by noting what Michael Osterholm, senior Covid advisor to President Biden, and expert in infectious diseases, is not saying in the clip below. He is not saying that all facemasks are useless. Nor is he saying that we should all stop wearing them.

What he is saying is something much more nuanced, but still very important: That facemasks, particularly those made of cloth, are just not very effective at all at protecting you from Covid-19, and that people have been mislead into thinking that they offer far more protections than they do:

This isn’t the first time Osterholm has said this either. Last year, before he was hired by Biden, he said this:

[The general public] should be made aware that [cloth] masks may provide some benefit in reducing the risk of virus transmission, but at best it can only be anticipated to be limited. Distancing remains the most important risk reduction action they can take. … 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. 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.

Alas for Osterholm, and those of us who know that what he says makes perfect sense, that ship has long since sailed. Go stand by the entrance to any shop in rural Ireland, and you will see the same thing, several times a minute: People getting out of a car, wandering towards the door, and extracting well-worn, cheap, and often dirty masks from their pockets, and then covering their faces with them. Most of the masks in question are not designed to stop viral particles, or capable of doing so. Many of the people putting them on then proceed to go about as normal, thinking that the mask protects them from any stray covid droplets, when it does no such thing. Proper N-95 masks do work, but very few of us wear those.

The messaging on masks from the beginning of the pandemic has been worse than awful. The science says they do work, but only in a specific way: Imagine 100 people in a room, and one person coughing. With no face masks, that person will infect many more people than he or she would if everybody was wearing some kind of mask. That is how they work: to limit spread, not to stop it. And even then, they only work if everybody is wearing, and using them, correctly.

The problem gets worse, of course, when you mandate their use. Putting them on becomes an automatic afterthought – something people do not even think about, much like flicking the indicator in the car as they approach a turn. It becomes an act of habit, not an act of careful thought. And the problem, he says (correctly, in my view) is that rather than making people safer, they actually lead people to engage in more risky behaviours, because they provide an entirely false sense of security.

All of this seems entirely logical, and sensible, to me. The facemask mandates that are presently in place in Ireland do very little to make people safer: Their primary function is to make the nervous amongst us feel safer than they actually are. They should be abolished, but they’ll stay, for the simple reason that they function as an obvious visual signal to the covid cautious that the Government is still on their side, somewhat. You’re not being made wear them to keep yourself safe. You’re being made wear them to make other people feel safe. Which is a lot of nonsense, but there you go.

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