The Mask Debate


The real problem, according to this view, is that the U.S. has done too little to protect people from Covid; if exaggerating individual risk can reduce Covid’s communal risk, isn’t that a good thing?

There is some logic to this line of thinking, because the U.S. has indeed done too little to battle Covid. But the argument depends on the assumption that almost all Covid restrictions improve public health, and that isn’t necessarily true. Nearly every restriction has both benefits and costs. The question is, when do the benefits outweigh the costs?

With the vaccines and boosters, the answer is clear. The benefits (a huge reduction in the risk of death, hospitalization and other symptoms) vastly outweigh the costs (a day or two of potentially feeling crummy). With many other mitigation strategies, however, the answer is murkier. The disruption and isolation of the past two years have contributed to increases in educational inequality, mental-health problems, blood pressure, drug overdoses, violent crime and other serious ills.

Masks are an intriguing tool because they allow people to be together while also protecting themselves. Yet a growing number of Americans are nonetheless deciding that the costs of masks often fall short of the benefits, especially in schools.

Let’s dig into both the costs and benefits of school mask mandates.

The benefits of universal masking in schools remain unclear. Studies — in Florida and in England, for example — tend to find little effect on caseloads. One study that did find an effect has been largely debunked.

Some experts still favor masks in schools, saying they likely have an effect, even if few studies have yet shown it. A lot of other evidence suggests masking matters. Until the Omicron wave ends and both hospitalizations and deaths fall much further, masks should stay on, these experts say.

Other experts believe mandated school masking is almost worthless. “It doesn’t work,” Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist, told me. Among the reasons: Medical masks are designed for adults, not children, Osterholm notes. Even masks designed for children slip off their faces. Children take off their masks to eat. Add in Omicron’s intense contagiousness, and the benefits of mandates may be tiny.

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