Data Wonk

The War Against Masks

It’s the most cost effective way to slow the pandemic. So why such opposition?

By - Jul 8th, 2020 08:51 pm
Mask. Pixabay License Free for commercial use No attribution required

Mask. (Pixabay License).

In an article published on June 30th in, former U.S. Senator Bob Kasten asserts that “Wisconsin is successfully keeping the [COVID-19] virus under control.” Does the evidence support that assertion?

The graph below shows the newly reported cases in Wisconsin each day since March 5th. The dotted blue line shows the 7-day moving average of the new cases. The vertical dotted green line shows the date of the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision against the governor’s emergency order aimed at reducing the spread of the virus.

Wisconsin New Cases

Wisconsin New Cases

Following the court’s decision, the number of cases in Wisconsin continued to rise for two weeks, only to fall over the following two weeks, perhaps leading support to an impression that COVID-19 was “under control” in Wisconsin. However, by the time Kasten’s column was published, cases had been steadily climbing in Wisconsin.

At the time the court issued its decision, new cases were being found at the average rate of 300 per day. Most recently, that average has doubled—to 600 per day. One factor behind this growth is COVID-19’s steady spread to more Wisconsin counties.

Consider Dade County. On February fifth of this year, Dane County reported Wisconsin’s first known case of COVID-19. Despite this early introduction to the virus, Dane County’s next infection didn’t occur until over a month later—on March tenth. As the next chart shows, subsequent Dane County cases have been steady but quite low, particularly when compared to Milwaukee. However, in mid-June that changed, as the next chart shows.

Dane New Cases

Dane New Cases

Reflecting Donald Trump, state Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) claimed that cases are rising because testing is rising. Does Kapenga’s claim fit the evidence?

As the next graph shows, the number of tests given in Wisconsin has been drifting downward since early June, rather than increasing.

Testing for COVID-19 in Wisconsin

Testing for COVID-19 in Wisconsin

After bottoming out in June, the percentage of positive results—showing the presence of COVID-19—has been growing, as shown below. Again, this is consistent with a real growth of cases in Wisconsin, contrary to Kapenga’s (and Trump’s claim).

Percent of Wisconsin Tests Positive

Percent of Wisconsin Tests Positive

Perhaps the most worrying measure for the future of the pandemic in Wisconsin comes from a model to estimate the value of Rt—the average spread rate of each person with COVID-19. Rt is defined as the average number of other people each person with COVID-19 infects. Currently the model estimates that each person who contracts the virus infects about 1.4 others, which ties with Montana for the highest of any state. According to the model there is an 80 percent probability that the true value falls between 1.1 and 1.6.

Rt Results for Wisconsin

Rt Results for Wisconsin

The two vertical lines show the start of shelter (when the governor issued his emergency order) and its stop (when the state Supreme Court ruled against extending the order). It does appear that the governor’s emergency order served to drive down Rt, while the court’s order drove it back up.

The next scatter plot looks at the history of all 50 states. On the horizontal axis are the number of cases (per hundred thousand residents) that each state experienced prior to the end of May. On the right are New York, New Jersey, and other highly urbanized states in the Northeast that were heavily impacted at the start of the pandemic.

Cases per 100,000 Residents: States

Cases per 100,000 Residents: States

The vertical axis shows the number of cases each state had starting June 1st. The states with high numbers are in the South and West and mainly avoided the full brunt of the early pandemic. In many of these states the governors seem to have taken their relative luck in the early part of pandemic as assurance that they could safely reopen bars, restaurants, and other places where people cluster even while COVID-19 was freely circulating. A number of these states are now reversing their reopenings and scrambling to expand their hospital capacities.

The states in the lower left-hand corner did relatively well with both the early and late parts of the pandemic. So far, Wisconsin (shown with the green square) could be included in this group. Its total number of cases of 600 per 100,000 residents (0.6 percent) meant that 65 percent of states had a higher caseload.

However, the evidence described above suggests that Wisconsin is on track to experience an increasing number of cases, unless there is some intervention. This is likely to make many residents reluctant to circulate and therefore put a damper on the Wisconsin economy. Rather than the “V-shaped” recovery that Kasten predicts, Wisconsin may be facing increasing infections, forcing either planned shutdowns or unplanned impromptu shutdowns as residents decide that participating in many economic activities is too dangerous.

Probably the most cost-effective way to head off this future is convincing people to wear masks whenever they cannot physically distance from others. There is credible evidence that this could drive down Rt to some number below one, in particular by reducing the odds that people whose symptoms have not yet appeared will infect others.

Oddly, the Trump administration seems intent on sabotaging the use of masks. Trump himself refuses to wear one. He insists on holding rallies with no masks or other distancing. Most infamously, his campaign removed social-distancing stickers from seats at his Tulsa Rally

On the right of the political spectrum, there is a whole edifice devoted to convincing people not to use masks. A hiker on the Ice Age Trail told me that by wearing a mask I was putting my lungs at risk. There is no evidence for this claim or the parallel claim that wearing a mask will “lower the immune system.”

Kasten completes his column on a Trumpian note:

There’s only one thing that could jeopardize our recovery, and it’s not a mythical “second wave” of coronavirus infections — it’s the potential election of Joe Biden as president. In place of Donald Trump’s pro-growth, pro-worker, pro-American agenda, Biden would be a stooge for the radical left, adding mind-bogglingly-expensive big-government programs such as the $93 trillion “Green New Deal” to the job-killing taxes and regulations that hamstrung our economy during the Obama-Biden administration and that he plans to revive.

There is widespread agreement among economists that the best way to restore a vibrant economy is to attack the frequency of COVID-19 infections. Unfortunately, many politicians have it backwards. Like Kasten, they believe that the economy can be opened up even while ignoring the virus.

More about the Coronavirus Pandemic

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Categories: Data Wonk, Health, Politics

10 thoughts on “Data Wonk: The War Against Masks”

  1. GRSJAP says:

    Not to answer the question in the title, but to ask another . . .what is your scientific evidence for thinking masks help curtail spread of the virus? Over several (many?) decades, there have been scientific studies of masks and microbe (virus, bacteria, fungus, etc.) transmission. None has shown positively that they impede, let alone prevent such transmission. Most of the articles are accessible through the data base Medline. They include a few meta analyses. Overall, results of mask effectiveness are at best inconclusive. So, again, why do you think they are effective? Please note my question is not about whether they are, but what is the basis or evidence for your belief?

  2. B says:

    HI GRSJAP – can you link some of the medline meta analyses articles that you mention in your comment? Thanks.

  3. GRSJAP says:

    Better to do your own research. Just go to Medline or other Med-Science data base and plug in search terms. The reason I say this is that then you and anyone else can trust your results. My main concern is that public voices rely on so-called authorities. I do not trust authorities. They told us Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” ad other lies. I’m pretty sure the Milwaukee Public Library System provides access to such data bases.

  4. B says:

    Thanks GRSJAP. I searched the database for [mask virus meta]. Six out of the first 10 results seemed relevant. The majority said that masks can help reduce the spread. One mentioned that effectiveness is reduced when not handled properly. This could probably be overcome with education.

    I understand you about not trusting authorities. Where do you draw the line though? If every journalist had to reinvent the wheel nothing would ever get written.

  5. hillard says:

    There’s also a fundamental flaw in comparing masks to Iraq; it is a false equivalence. The consequences of misleading the public on intelligence about weapons of mass destruction had profound, deadly consequences. That is not the case with masks. Setting aside the data on the effectiveness of masks (and evidence does exist that they can make a difference, although they are not a substitute for social distancing) even if the science is not conclusive at this stage, what is the harm? The personal cost is negligible and the potential benefit (saving lives) is very high. If you subscribe to any kind of utilitarianism the choice is clear. I’d gladly inconvenience myself to a far greater degree if there was the possibility it could keep others safe.

  6. TransitRider says:

    GRSJAP, If masks don’t stop the spread of disease, why do surgeons all wear them? Have they all been duped? Do they wear masks to trick us?

    Would you feel comfortable being cut open by a bare-faced surgeon?

  7. GRSJAP says:

    Two points
    First, medical caregivers wear masks to protect patients from sneezes, coughs, nose, drips, etc, and second to protect themselves from spurting blood and pus, and other gross particulate matter. This is also why many eastern Asians wear masks, because they live in areas with dirty air.
    Second, when scientists say something may do this or that it means they have no scientific proof, which means inconclusive.
    A question for self examination: Did you wear a mask in other previous flu epidemics? Why are you wearing one now?
    Finally, to the issue of WMDs and masks, when someone starts telling me under rule of law that I have to wear a certain thing else I cannot conduct essential business or go certain places, it hearkens back to a very dark era in Europe.

  8. Nicholas La Joie says:

    GRSJAP- seriously? Are you really picking this hill to die on?
    How does wearing a mask even begin to hurt you? Don’t be obstinate and make it into some nonsense about your “freedoms”. Just be safe and wear a mask. It’s not a big deal.

  9. TransitRider says:

    GRSJAP, masks are needed because there are at least three big differences between Trump flu (COVID) and other flus…

    • Vaccines are available for non-Trump flus. Even if I encounter somebody spreading non-Trump flu, I can still protect myself against sickness.

    • Trump flu makes you far sicker than “regular” flu. While our attention is focused on Trump flu’s somewhat higher death rate, the sickness it causes in non-fatal cases (you know, the 99% Trump calls “totally harmless”) can feel worse than death…weeks or months of being unable to catch your breath followed by permanently scarred lungs (30-year-olds that wheeze like they’re 80), chronic fatigue, and/or brain fog; needing occupational therapy after hospital discharge to re-learn how to talk, swallow, and count.

    And this disease is so new, we don’t even know what comes next…will it return periodically like herpes or in a new form like the way chicken pox morphs into shingles?

    • Unlike any other flu, most Trump flu carriers are asymptomatic…Millions of “Typhoid Marys” walking among us unaware of the sickness they spread. It is precisely because of this hidden nature that masks are necessary for EVERYBODY, because it isn’t just coughing and sneezing that spread Trump flu, it’s also just talking.

  10. weitenma83 says:

    GRSJAP – ” when someone starts telling me under rule of law that I have to wear a certain thing else I cannot conduct essential business or go certain places”. What about those pesky signs that say ‘No shirt, No shoes, No service”? Do you object to/ignore those, too? They are also there for health reasons.

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