Did the CDC Lie about the Effectiveness of Masks for COVID-19?

This post contains a video, which you can also view here. To support more videos like this, head to patreon.com/rebecca!


Hey friends, welcome to week 4 (ish?) of quarantine — for me, at least, because I live in a city that took COVID-19 seriously way back when it was just a baby epidemic. And before that, I was quarantining anyway because it’s just my natural way of life and I will thank you to stop judging me.

This week’s big COVID-19 news is that the CDC has changed their messaging from “don’t buy masks, you don’t need them” to “oh actually everyone should probably be wearing masks.” I saw this over on Reddit’s r/coronavirus, where I get all my pandemic-related news. (This is a joke. Do not use Reddit as your news service.) The inhabitants there are NOT pleased, saying that this is “plainly criminal” behavior (475 upvotes), they “misled the public” (842 upvotes) ,and the CDC lied about the effectiveness of masks because “simply because they did not have enough for general public” (400 upvotes).

Look, these are tough times for everybody and I, too, have a lot of frustration about the way various world governments, especially the United States, completely bungled this. Like I said in my last video about N-95 masks, the reason why there is a shortage is because our government failed to listen to epidemiologists who warned them that this was going to happen. Not only did they fail to stock up on masks ahead of time, but Trump cut the council in charge of pandemics in half.

So can we blame that on the CDC? I mean obviously there’s a lot of interconnectedness and plenty of fuck-ups to go around, but as I said in that other video, Trump specifically rearranged things so that the CDC was no longer in charge of our country’s emergency stash of masks and other medical equipment. They used to be, but in 2018 Trump put all that under the purview of the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services.

So did the CDC lie to the public in order to stop people from hoarding those masks? There is absolutely no evidence for that, and plenty of evidence against it. As I stated before, average consumers simply can’t hoard so many masks that they’d make a dent in our hospitals’ stash. That problem comes from the suppliers — they need to produce more masks because our hospitals are going through them so quickly.

Second of all, the advice is still “you probably don’t need an N-95 mask.” As I’ve said repeatedly, in pretty much every video about this topic, N-95 masks are great if you are in close contact with a sick person. For everyone else? Just stay home. Avoid crowds. Avoid enclosed spaces. Order your groceries to be picked up. Stay home and read your Bible instead of going to church. Wanna go for a walk and you’re scared someone will breathe on you? An N-95 is overkill. A fabric mask is fine. If the CDC didn’t want a run on N-95 masks, they could have just told the public “leave those for medical professionals, we recommend everyone else wear a fabric mask.” The primary mode of transmission, as best as scientists can tell, is touching objects with the virus on it and then touching your face, or being in close contact with someone to the point that the droplets that contain the virus can actually blast into your face. The original advice still stands: avoid people. Wash your hands. And if you absolutely cannot avoid people, a mask might help reduce the spread so long as you use it properly.

What’s properly mean? Well, the better the fit the better it works. A good mask should not have gaps around your nose and mouth, and the thicker material the less shit can get through it. You can make a fabric mask out of a tshirt or a bandana if you want. Once it’s fit onto your face, don’t touch it. The point is that the mask stops viral globules, which means that if it’s working, the outside is covered in death. Don’t wear it for more than a few hours, and when you’re done remove it without touching the outside (and wash your hands after to be safe). Wash it before you wear it again. And don’t let the mask give you a false sense of security — a flimsy physical barrier provides some protection, but not a lot. That means you as an individual might still get sick, but if everyone is wearing one then the result could be dramatic. You are still absolutely better off sheltering in place, avoiding people, and washing your hands.

Okay, so if I don’t believe the CDC was purposely lying to us to stop a run on masks, why are they only just now thinking of changing their advice? Simple: because there’s more data now. This is how science works. This pandemic moved very quickly — yes, there’s more our government could have done to prepare, and more they should still currently be doing, but scientists have been working as quickly as they can to separate fact from fiction, figuring out how this particular virus transmits and how we can best protect ourselves. And they have been doing it all with seriously incomplete data, thanks to our shitty governments. China tried to cover things up. The US isn’t testing the number of people they should be testing. All that led to scientists missing a lot of key data, including the fact that a huge number of carriers are asymptomatic, meaning they have no symptoms and don’t even realize they have it. If symptoms show up early in a disease’s lifespan, people who are feeling ill can self-isolate and others can avoid them. But if people have no idea they’re sick and they’re just wandering around because, say, their government hasn’t told their employers they have to stay home, well that changes things. Now, people who aren’t feeling sick, and don’t know anyone who is feeling sick, might be out there spreading disease. So, if everyone was wearing some kind of mask with some type of protection regardless of whether they feel sick, you have a chance to reduce the spread. 

Of course, you can also reduce the spread by doing what scientists originally suggested and which they still suggest is the best way to stop the spread: STAY HOME. I know, it feels silly to stay cooped up at home when you aren’t sick. That’s the point. In a pandemic, doing the right thing feels like an overreaction. If you do the wrong thing, you’ll look back and see you didn’t do enough.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

Related Articles


  1. Last night I remember I had bought a face mask several years ago to use while sanding from a woodworking supply store. I rooted around in the basement and found a barely used (a little dusty) 3M N95 mask! I wore it for the first time on my walk this morning. People were almost all doing a decent job of social (or antisocial?) distancing and probably a little more than half were wearing masks. A couple of times I desperately wanted to scratch my nose, but successfully resisted. Even when I sneezed (spring allergies). Fortunately no one was around to get freaked out at the time, and I think the mask contained it all.

    My one disappointment was encountering a local hero who was walking her dog with her husband. Sadly, they weren’t wearing masks but they were staying 6-10 feet away from other people. Their dog, Bailey, was NOT practicing any sort of social distancing as he almost bowled me over en route to sniffing at the base of the nearest tree. Being a coward, I wimped out about mentioning the masks, and telling Liz how much we desperately need her, and instead made a lame joke about how Bailey must be rooting for burritos. She said “But it was a very good burrito” and laughed and we parted ways.

    I’m experimenting with ways to sterilize my one and only mask, but can’t thing of any way to test it without committing mass murder. I put on a trivet (to keep it from getting wet) in about 1/2′” of water in a medium sauce pan and set it to boiling, lid on, for 5-6 minutes, until almost all the water was gone. The pan was full of steam and the mask was hot and damp but still intact. I hope this works…

    1. Hi Buzz! Glad you seem to be doing okay.
      I don’t have the link but a study was done on sterilisation methods for N95 masks and the upshot was to use a warm oven at 75 degrees C for 30 min. This worked OK for 20 uses. Wet methods tend to wreck the special filtration layer.

      Was going to post this before but thought better of it as if the method is wrong or inapplicable in some way to all cases, I didn’t want to be responsible for leading folks up the wrong path. Then again, maybe some info is better than none at all.

      Suffice to say that this source passed my hyper critical, hyper vigilant corona bullshit skeptical radar and my GP wife and I are using this method.

      While I’m here I thought this was a nice message from the Czech republic:-

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button