At the beginning of a Medal of Honor ceremony last week, President Biden wore a mask. This provided an interesting juxtaposition: a public celebration of extreme courage, coupled with a pointless display of excessive risk-aversion. Biden also demonstrated his aversion to following scientific evidence, the best of which suggests that masks don’t work. In other words, the president was hiding his face from a Medal of Honor winner for nothing. (Biden did shed his mask later in the ceremony, as it was apparently only needed at the start.)

It’s not only in the White House that such mask hysteria reigns. Though masks impair communication and undermine learning, a junior high school in rural Alabama—where just 27 percent of students are proficient in math and 22 percent are proficient in reading—recently mandated masks. Meantime, an elementary school in Silver Spring, Maryland, also mandated masks, distributing KN95s (the Chinese version of N95s) to grade-schoolers. Most (59 percent) of the students in the Maryland school and almost all (96 percent) of those in the Alabama school are minorities. So much for “equity.”

Katherine J. Wu, a science writer for The Atlantic, recently reported that “across hospitals . . . infection-prevention experts shared one sentiment: They felt almost certain that the masks would need to return, likely by the end of the calendar year.” Wu asserts that “COVID’s arrival had cemented masks’ ability to stop respiratory spread” and says, “Nearly every expert I spoke with told me they expected that masks would at some point come back.”

Wu’s article implies that it’s safer and more responsible for hospitals to impose mask mandates, but she laments that such mandates may not be popular. In truth, when hospitals impose mask mandates, they aren’t basing their decision on medical evidence. 

Randomized controlled trials are the gold standard of medical research, and Cochrane reviews are the gold standard for reviewing such trials. A recent Cochrane review found, “Wearing masks in the community probably makes little or no difference to the outcome of influenza-like illness (ILI)/COVID-19 like illness”—or “to the outcome of laboratory-confirmed influenza/SARS-CoV-2”—“compared to not wearing masks.” Moreover, “The use of a N95/P2 respirators compared to medical/surgical masks probably makes little or no difference.” Stating things even more plainly, the review’s lead author, Oxford’s Tom Jefferson, said of masks in a subsequent interview with Australian investigative journalist Maryanne Demasi, “There is just no evidence that they make any difference. Full stop.”

As Cochrane observed, 16 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have now been conducted on surgical or cloth masks, none of which has provided compelling evidence that they work. Two of these RCTs actually found statistically significant evidence that masks are counterproductive in stopping the spread of viruses. Two RCTs were completed during the pandemic. One found no statistically significant evidence that masks work, while the other—touted by mask advocates but riddled with methodological flaws—found nearly identical outcomes in its mask and non-mask groups. When a medical intervention goes 0-for-16 in RCTs, it’s time to accept that it doesn’t work. (If one needs further proof, check out this chart made by Ian Miller, which shows the striking similarity in case rates between mask-free and mask-mandate states.)

Surgical masks were designed to protect patients’ open wounds from being infected by medical personnel, not to prevent the spread of viruses. N95s were designed to protect workers from breathing in dust, fumes, or smoke. On the occasions that N95s were worn in hospitals pre-Covid, it was usually to protect against the spread of tuberculosis bacteria, not to protect against the spread of viruses. As an article on the National Institutes of Health website, published in the less politicized pre-Covid days, puts it, “Viruses are tiny. . . . Billions can fit on the head of a pin.” Bacteria are comparatively huge: “Bacteria are 10 to 100 times larger than viruses.”

How can masks potentially increase the likelihood of spreading viruses? Before public-health officials did their politically motivated about-face on masks during the panic-filled early stages of the pandemic, then-surgeon general Jerome Adams said, “Folks who don’t know how to wear [masks] properly tend to touch their faces a lot and actually can increase the spread of coronavirus.” Cochrane adds the possibility of “saturation of masks with saliva from extended use (promoting virus survival in proteinaceous material).”

As for how one should wear a mask “properly,” the World Health Organization produced an amusing video offering this advice regarding children: “Before putting on the mask, children should clean their hands . . . at least 40 seconds if using soap and water. . . . Children should not touch the front of the mask [or] pull it under the chin. . . . After taking off the mask, they should store it in a bag or container and clean their hands.” Then, after conducting this highly implausible regimen, the mask still probably won’t do any good—but being clean, at least it won’t make things worse.

Actually, it will. As German researchers have highlighted, mask-wearers are effectively poisoning themselves by breathing in their own carbon dioxide. They note research suggesting that mask-wearers (specifically those who wear masks for more than five minutes at a time) are breathing in 35 to 80 times normal levels—four to ten times toxic levels. (For N95 masks, the range is 60 to 80 times normal levels.)

Such CO2 levels easily exceed those allowed on a U.S. Navy submarine. Due to concerns about the risks of stillborn births or birth defects when pregnant women serve aboard submarines, the Navy has decreed that CO2 levels are not allowed to exceed 0.8 percent—about 20 times normal levels. So mask mandates have forced pregnant women to breathe in levels of CO2 that would be banned if they were serving on a Navy sub.

Breathing in too much CO2 can result in—among other things—high blood pressure, reduced thinking ability, respiratory problems, and reproductive concerns, write the German researchers. As John Tierney puts it, “No drug with all these potential side effects would be recommended, much less mandated, for the entire population.”

The German authors also note a 28 percent to 33 percent increase in stillborn births worldwide during the pandemic and suggest that mask use could be to blame. In Sweden, which famously avoided masks, “no increased risk of stillbirths was observed.” The authors note that in places where mask-wearing has long been part of the culture, stillborn births have often been more common. “Even before the pandemic,” they write, “in Asia, the stillbirth rates have been significantly higher” than in many other parts of the world.

While masks are potentially harmful to children in the womb, they are clearly harmful to children who have been born. As Tierney writes, analysis published in the Lancet by several dozen researchers found that mandating masks “had no significant effect on cumulative Covid infections or mortality,” but “it did correlate with one statistically significant effect: a decline in fourth-graders’ test scores.”

Indeed, through school mask mandates, school closures, and other senseless impositions, adults have made sure that kids have gotten the worst of the pandemic’s public-policy effects, even as the virus itself has largely—and mercifully—spared them. Based on the CDC’s own statistics, only one out of every 1,284 deaths “involving COVID-19” in the U.S. has been of a school-age child (ages five to 17). In other words, more than 99.9 percent of Covid-related deaths in the U.S. haven’t been of school-age children. What’s more, for every 100 school-age kids who have died—of any cause—during the Covid era (January 1, 2020, to September 2, 2023), only two have died of (or with) Covid.

The CDC statistics indicate that Covid-19 has been only marginally more deadly for school-age children than the flu has been, on average. Per the CDC, an average of 20 school-age kids died per month from influenza over the decade covering the 2010–2011 flu season through the 2019–2020 flu season (2,453 deaths over 120 months), while an average of 28 school-age kids have died per month from Covid (890 deaths over 32 months and two days, from January 1, 2020, to September 2, 2023). In marked contrast, for those in the 65-and-over age-range, Covid deaths per month (26,993—again, the number for school-age kids is 28) have been almost 12 times higher than flu deaths per month (2,278). (There have been 865,256 such deaths involving Covid over 32 months and two days, versus 273,331 deaths from the flu over 120 months).

Yet school-age children—and worse, preschoolers—have been the primary targets of mask mandates. One wonders how long kids will have to suffer so that adults can feel virtuous, or safer, by putting masks on them and obscuring their naturally smiling faces.

Such impoverishment of human social interaction is, of course, the other great cost of mask hysteria. Human beings primarily identify one another by seeing faces; each individual person matters and indeed possesses certain unalienable rights. But the mask hysterics don’t much care about human social interaction, or rights, or the scientific evidence. They are fully committed to perpetuating a myth. That way, apparently, they can feel like they’re in control—of both the virus and you.

Photo by Aaron Schwartz/NurPhoto via Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next