During an interview with the Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard Austrian health expert Claudia Wild stated the following: “The climate between the authority- or virus-thralled people and the ones who actually looked into the subject of these ridiculous masks making any kind of difference regarding infection, is getting worse. They (non-medical face masks) are more infection-nurturing than virus-repellent if they are consistently put in handbags and reworn, as it often happens.” So, our fact check began and turned out to be uncheckable.
Step one: Send out inquiries until your fingers hurt
Firstly, Claudia Wild, CEO of the Austrian Institute for Health Technology Assessment (AIHTA), told us that she was indeed talking about non-medical face masks that cover mouth and nose as well as self-sewn face masks. She also stated that she was referring to two studies in her statement: one of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (“COVID 19 – Masks on or off?”) as well as a cross-country research (“Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses”).
Claudia Wild also mentioned that her claim was not about the general rejection of non-medical face masks, but about their handling. But her sources supporting her claim?
While researchers on “COVID 19 – Masks on or off?” summarize that the evidence of 14 trials showed no effects on the use of masks versus no masks, they admit that this is not a final finding. They also state the risk of masks getting filthy and contaminated with airborne pathogens. The second study could not find enough evidence to support the use of facial barriers without combination with other measures. Nevertheless, they would still recommend using masks.
These two studies do not fully falsify or verify Claudia Wild’s claim.
Even though they are critical about the performance of masks, they don’t include statements on their safety when packed and repacked. Therefore, we also took sources of the Austrian Department of Health into consideration, which is shaping the discourse around important healthcare decisions like the Covid-19 epidemic.
Step two: Try to understand the scientific jumble
The Austrian Department of Health pointed us to two additional studies: an ECDC (European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control) report (“Using face masks in the community”) as well as a report of the renowned German Robert-Koch-institute.
Arguments brought forth by the ECDC report include pros and cons. For example: Through wearing non-medical face masks one is likely to touch his/her face less and therefore minimize the infection risk. However, it also states the following: “There is a risk that improper removal of the face mask, handling of a contaminated face mask or an increased tendency to touch the face while wearing a face mask by healthy persons might actually increase the risk of transmission.”
In line with the other reports, this one also states that there is only limited and indirect evidence supporting the effectiveness of non-medical face masks. Moreover, people could mistakenly have a false feeling of security.
Findings of the Robert-Koch-institute paint a similar picture: On one hand they emphasize the need of not touching the masks to avoid contamination as well as a higher risk of contamination the longer a mask is worn. On the other hand, they also refer to a new study which shows that non-medical masks help reduce the spread of respiratory viruses.
Step three: combine all your ingredients
Even though all sources did not specifically falsify or verify Claudia Wild’s claim, all of them are ambivalent towards the effect of non-medical face masks. Furthermore, the ECDC report explicitly states that masks should be handled very carefully.
However, none of the studies or reports declare that the masks truly get more infection-nurturing than virus-repellent. Summing up, this claim is uncheckable. It does raise the question on the efficiency of making masks mandatory in public spaces as well as if the Austrian government’s credo is “better safe than sorry”.
RESEARCH | ARTICLE © University of Applied Sciences for Management and Communication, Vienna, Austria
Leave your comments, thoughts and suggestions in the box below. Take note: your response is moderated.