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Truth-test: McMorris Rodgers claims masking guidance is based on ‘junk science,’ but many respected studies show benefits of masks

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 21, 2022

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., are pictured.  (J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., are pictured. (J. Scott Applewhite)
By Albert James The Spokesman-Review

Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rogers accused the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of Thursday of using “junk science” to justify rules requiring schoolchildren wear masks.

She made the remarks during a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on cryptocurrency and they stand in contrast to many leading studies that show masks reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools.

“We’ve seen the CDC rely on junk science to force masks in schools,” McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said at the hearing. “The CDC also continues to force children as young as 2 years old to wear masks, despite the WHO, UNICEF, European CDC and other international partners advising against it.”

McMorris Rodgers also submitted a statement to the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis after Gov. Jay Inslee appeared before the panel. In the statement, she doubled down on the idea that mask mandates for K-12 schools go against science.

“In Washington state, despite this overwhelming scientific data, Gov. Jay Inslee has instituted a statewide mask mandate for most indoor settings, including K-12 schools,” the statement read in part.

#UNMASKOURCHILDREN began to trend on Twitter later Thursday. The platform linked a page explaining the effectiveness of masks to the trending topic.

The CDC recommends masks for adults and children in schools. The agency also says that it is safe for anyone age 2 and older to wear a mask.

As the highly transmissible omicron variant spreads throughout the country, the CDC has updated its guidance to reflect that certain masks and respirators such as N95s work better than cloth masks in reducing transmission of COVID-19.

Still, the guidance emphasized that “any mask is better than no mask,” and different types of masks and respirators provide different levels of protection. People should wear the most protective mask they can, make sure it is well-fitted and wear it consistently, according to CDC guidance.

Claim: The CDC is relying on “junk science to force masks in schools.”

Truthfulness: Some experts have questioned one prominent study showing the effectiveness of masks in schools, but the guidance recommending masks is backed by multiple peer-reviewed studies that have broad backing by medical and public health experts.

Analysis: Numerous studies have shown that universal masking, in addition to other mitigation strategies such as better air circulation and distancing, limits the spread of COVID in schools and other settings where people gather.

A study conducted in the summer of 2021 by the ABC Science Collaborative and published in the journal Pediatrics found that North Carolina schools saw a lower rate of delta variant infection among students and staff compared with the greater community as the result of a school mask mandate.

The ABC Science Collaborative is a partnership between the Duke University School of Medicine and Duke Clinical Research Institute.

More than 71,000 students and staff were monitored during a two-month period of summer and year-round classes. At the end of the study, 808 individuals acquired COVID infections from the community, but only 64 individuals acquired it from school. The delta variant was estimated to make up all of the COVID cases in the community at the end of the study.

Another ABC Science Collaborative study looked at two North Carolina school districts which implemented programs to ensure students and staff properly used face masks. The study found that schools with high masking adherence saw low rates of secondary transmission.

For seven weeks last spring , around 23,000 students were reminded frequently how to properly wear a mask. Both districts reported high percentages of students wearing masks correctly. Only 14 cases of COVID-19 were acquired from the schools.

Denise Smart, the associate dean for faculty affairs at the Washington State University College of Nursing , called mask wearing one of the tools to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“Mask wearing offers a scientific level of protection for our children if it’s the appropriate mask and it fits right,” Smart said.

When asked to clarify on the congresswoman’s remarks, a spokesperson for McMorris Rodgers referred to an article in The Atlantic that questioned a study of Arizona schools that showed schools without mask mandates were 3.5 times more likely to have a COVID outbreak than schools that did have a mandate.

The Arizona study was published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Critics, including Louise-Anne McNutt, described by The Atlantic as a “former Epidemic Intelligence Service officer for the CDC and an epidemiologist at the State University of New York at Albany,” said the study’s time windows weren’t uniform across schools, the use of school-related outbreaks as a count rather than cases per student per week were “problematic” and that the study failed to account for vaccination statuses and other mitigation efforts.

While CDC director Rochelle Walensky has cited the study to support its school mask guidance, the CDC page on masks in schools also cites peer-reviewed research articles that have been published in Pediatrics, Lancet Regional Health – Europe and other medical journals.

Smart said the evolving nature of the pandemic leads to evolving guidance. But that doesn’t mean the guidance is flawed.

“I don’t think the recommendations that come out about mask wearing in schools is based on junk science,” Smart said. “I think it’s based on evolving science.”

Claim: The CDC forces children as young as 2 years old to wear masks, when the World Health Organization, UNICEF and European CDC advise against that.

Truthfulness: Misleading.

Analysis: The CDC guidelines, stating that children over the age of 2 can safely wear a mask, are not a requirement. The WHO and UNICEF advise that children 5 and under should not be required to wear masks. “This is based on the safety and overall interest of the child and the capacity to appropriately use a mask with minimal assistance,” the guidance says.

The European CDC does not recommend mask wearing for students in primary school: “Children (12 years) may have a lower tolerance to wearing masks for extended periods of time, and may fail to wear them properly.”

However, the American Academy of Pediatrics “strongly recommends” that anyone 2 and older wear a face mask when they are in public. The academy also says it is safe for children 2 years of age and older to wear a face mask.

A study from the Journal of School Health reported that 92 teachers in pre-kindergarten through second grade classrooms in Atlanta-area Catholic schools recorded their students appropriately wearing their masks 77% of the day.

Smith disagreed that children under 5 were incapable of wearing masks. She remembered being on a plane with many young children who had no issue with wearing a mask.

“Every child had a mask on unless they were 2 and under,” Smart said. “I didn’t see anybody screaming or whining.”

What students say about masks

Many high school students support mask wearing, and recognize the importance of doing so to stay in school, even if they don’t always like wearing them.

“I don’t really mind wearing my mask for a few hours, if it means that we can stay in school,” Gonzaga Prep junior Sonny Ritcher said.

Natalie Valley, another junior at Gonzaga Prep, agreed. Valley said she didn’t love wearing a mask, but “going to school every day, receiving an in-person education, and seeing my friends is more important to me.”

Shadle Park junior Carlene Nolan said masks are important because at school, it’s easy to interact with many different people without knowing where they go outside of school.

“We need masks as protection,” Nolan said.

Some students, however, expressed their frustration with mask policies.

“Although I truly love being in person for school and with my friends, masks are becoming more and more frustrating because we keep getting promised that normalcy is around the corner,” Gonzaga Prep junior Griffin Satterfield said. “However, normalcy still hasn’t come yet and we continue to see our friends in Idaho and other schools have normalcy.”

Idaho does not currently have a mask mandate.

S-R reporters Sophia McFarland, Jordan Tolley-Turner and Laurel Demkovich contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the correct spelling of Smart’s name.

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