By Meg Hansen
This month, I joined Rob Roper (President, Ethan Allen Institute) on WDEV’s Common Sense Radio show to discuss mandatory universal masking as a COVID-19 policy response. The segment features two callers that disagreed with my opposition to mandates. The entire show can be found here.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Rob Roper: We’ve been dealing with the COVID pandemic for two years. We’re still dealing with school closings and mask mandates. And right now, we’ve got different communities, throughout our state, deciding whether they want to have mask mandates or not. From your perspective, as somebody with a medical background and who looks at and can understand the science, what should we be thinking about these potential mandates? What are the implications particularly as it impacts kids?
I’ve seen a story lately saying that the number of issues that are happening in our schools, and with younger adults in terms of opioid overdoses and depression and anxiety, all of these things are on the rise and a lot of it has to do with our reaction to the COVID virus. We’ve tried to avoid one problem but we have, in many respects, created others by taking that first action. So what should we be doing? Where should we be going?
Meg Hansen: It’s a great question and a great way to look at this very complex subject. I would like to start off by saying that science is really politicized in America.
This is the way I look at it. When you want to make prudent and fact-based policy, it needs to be multifactorial, that is, it needs to consider multiple factors. It cannot be solely based on an appeal to authority. You will constantly hear people say that the CDC says X or the NIH says Y or a certain public intellectual says Z, and appealing to that person or agency’s authority alone makes the point valid. No, that’s not true.
When you want to make a good faith claim, it should be informed by scientific evidence that comes from clinical studies such as Randomized Controlled Trials and clinical observational studies. It cannot be based on an appeal to the authority of public health agencies. When we talk about masks, specifically whether children should be masked or not, even the public health agencies are not in consensus. If they are divided on this issue, how can you make a selective appeal to one of them? The European CDC, for example, does not recommend masks for students in elementary and middle school. Norway explicitly discourages masks for children under the age of 13, and has never required masks at any level of schooling. The same is true in Sweden. Denmark, England, Ireland, and Switzerland no longer require masks in schools. In the Netherlands, if you’re in elementary school or middle school, you don’t have to wear a mask.
Rob: And they have science in these countries. They have scientists and medical doctors and these are different consensus that people come to based on looking at different experiments, different conclusions and different ways. It’s one of the things that worries me a little bit. People look to the government to tell them what to do in terms of a ritual. So if you follow the ritual, then no harm can come to you. And that’s just not the way that this works. Even if you do everything like wear a mask every day and get the vaccinations and the boosters, you can still get COVID.
Meg: Yes, you can still get COVID. Initially, we were told that if you get the vaccine, you don’t have to wear a mask. And then, there was a narrative about an epidemic of the unvaccinated but we know that many people who get infected have been vaccinated. As I said, science has become politicized. A lot of people will cite the CDC or NIH. But I look at a July 2021 study by engineering researchers at the University of Waterloo, and they demonstrated that the cloth or blue surgical mask, worn by most people, filters only ten percent of the aerosol droplets that we exhale and that accumulates indoors. When you wear an expensive N95 or KN95 mask, which is usually worn by surgeons, those filter 50 percent. To claim that a mask is going to prevent 100 percent transmission of this particular virus is just not true.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t wear it. I always believe that it should be optional. If you want to wear it, wear it. But forcing other people to wear it because it’s a ritual or you’re following the faulty narrative according to which you need to wear a mask to protect others (so you don’t you kill grandma or anyone else), these are very reductive and politicized statements that insult the intelligence of Americans and Vermonters.
Rob: If you’d like to join our conversation, give us a call 802-244-1777. This is Rob Roper, in for Bill Sayre today, talking with Meg Hansen. Now what do you think about all of these local communities trying to decide whether or not to have mask mandates? Talk about turning up the dial to eleven on the politicization of these mandates. It just seems like it’s going to heighten the acrimony, if not lessen the danger of the disease.
Meg: Here’s the thing, if you want to wear a mask, wear it. There’s no place or town that says you can’t wear masks. Masks are not banned. It’s very much in keeping with liberty and respecting individual rights and the freedom to live life the way you want. But when you want to push a mandate, it means that you want to coerce other people to behave a certain way or to do something of which you approve. I’ve been thinking about – what is the scientific reason for forcing other people to wear masks when a vaccine can’t prevent the virus? How can a cloth mask that only filters 10 percent of aerosol droplets do anything?
Rob: Well, it can do something for 10 percent. Filtering out 10 percent is better than filtering out nothing. But I think that psychologically, people will be much more open to being cooperative with one another if mandates don’t exist. Once you start to force somebody to try to do something, their backs get up and they get upset. “You’re not going to force me to do that. You can’t do that.”
When I go into a store and if the sign says, “Please wear a mask,” then I wear a mask. If they ask to wear a mask unless you’re vaccinated, then I don’t wear the mask because I have been vaccinated. I take the approach of “When in Rome or when in somebody else’s house.” If I go to somebody’s house and they ask me to take off shoes, I do so. The same applies with the mask. But once you start mandating things, people start to get upset and you get a lot less compliance than you would otherwise get.
It looks like we’ve got a caller coming on the line. What’s on your mind today, Mark?
Mark (caller): Well, I think that comments like N95 masks only filter 60 percent are part of what politicizes mask wearing. N95 masks filter 95 percent of particulates and mask wearing is effective. We’re being asked to do so by public health officials, not by politicians. I think that the politicization of these mandates is largely coming from folks like this radio show that for some reason or another, don’t want to wear a mask to help with the public health problem.
Rob: We just had a conversation where we said that we do wear masks. If I go to a store and there’s a sign on the door that says wear a mask, I wear one. The same thing with other people in their houses. If I sit down with somebody and they’re more comfortable with me wearing a mask, I wear one.
Meg: I have to push back about his 95 percent comment because I didn’t create that number [50 percent]. It came from the actual study by engineering researchers at the University of Waterloo, in which they constructed the experiment using a dummy. You’re right though; it’s not about 10 percent or 5 percent or 8 percent. If you want to wear a mask, wear it. The crux of this whole political divide lies with one faction – a small but very vocal one – that believes you need to do this or that, otherwise you will kill other people. And that’s just not true, especially if you’re vaccinated.
Rob: And again, the idea that you could have a conversation that talks about studies, actual studies that have been done showing how effective the mask is, how ineffective the mask is, how effective the vaccine is, what the vaccine does and what it doesn’t do is so alarming to some people. I really don’t understand why that is. It’s because [of the mentality]: “You have to do what I tell you to do. If there’s any information out there that causes you to question what I’m telling you to do, then that information needs to be suppressed and you need to be silenced.” That’s just not a healthy society. That’s not a healthy society at all.
Meg: It’s because we’ve reached a point where these issues, for a particular portion of our population, have become a part of their personal identity. People have found meaning in COVID mandates. When you find meaning in something, it becomes invaluable to you. If it’s part of your personality and somebody questions that, then they’re questioning you. They’re questioning your worth. It is definitely worth defending when somebody threatens who you are, the rubric of your being.
Rob: We got one more comment from Mark. And then, we’ve got another caller on the other line.
Mark (caller): A study does not evidence make. A study is a data set. You have to make multiple studies in order to come up with evidence, with proof. One study from the University of Waterloo is evidence, it is input into a problem, but the National Mine Safety Institute says that N95 masks protect against 95 percent. That’s what you have to go by when you’re a health professional and your fit testing people for N95 masks.
Meg: So why should you choose one over the other? That’s what I have been saying: everybody has his own point of view. But why make an appeal to authority as opposed to looking at this data set?? Is the Waterloo study wrong? No.
Mark (caller): No, Waterloo just isn’t supported by multiple studies.
Meg: So, if we can have an honest conversation about different studies and different points of views, then that’s healthy. There is back and forth and we can have an open, constructive conversation. But if one particular point of view is shut down as being horrible, for example claiming that this radio show “is not supporting public health,” then that is not conducive to robust, healthy conversation.
Rob: Mark, thanks for the call. I do want to squeeze in Marianne from Randolph before we run out of time.
Marianne (caller): I didn’t hear the whole conversation, so I don’t know if I’m relevant. I don’t know why people have a problem with wearing a mask. It doesn’t bother anybody. Some people have more problems. I have to wear oxygen, I wear hearing aids, and I still wear a mask. It takes me more effort to wear a mask than somebody else that could put it on for 10-15 minutes when they go somewhere. I don’t understand what the problem is. Wear the mask to protect people. You’re not protecting yourself. You’re protecting other people who have more severe health issues. I really don’t see why people are so up in arms about this mask thing because they would do other things to make people safe. So just get your act together.
Meg: But that’s just the thing, Rob. Why this narrative that you have to protect someone else? I don’t understand that. Most people are vaccinated. Vaccines are available. You can protect your own self. You don’t need other people to protect you.
Rob: I do take Mary’s point. I think that we should be courteous to other people and if there’s something that we can do to protect somebody, we should. I really don’t have a problem putting the mask on. But let’s just be honest about what that means. How helpful is it actually going to be? I’d like to have an honest conversation about the science of mask effectiveness.
It seems like we’ve reached a point where we can’t have that conversation anymore, where if you bring up a study from Waterloo that is contrary to the dominant narrative, then it needs to be dismissed. We can’t bring that up as it might cause people to behave in a way that is different from the way we want them to behave. We need to be honest about the policies that we put forward. It shouldn’t be because it makes me feel good or it makes me feel comfortable because there are people who do have issues with mask wearing.
Meg: We never got to the point about children. One of the callers said that there’s no harm. There is harm. Prolonged mask wearing comes with several documented harms, especially for young children.
Rob: I wish we had longer to get into that, but we’re down into our final seconds of the program. Meg Hansen, I want to thank you for being our guest today on Common Sense radio.