As the coronavirus pandemic continues to surge across the United States, several states are rolling back premature plans to loosen restrictions and finally promoting advice medical experts and scientists have been pushing for months: Wear face masks.
To date, approximately 131,000 people have died and more than 3 million have been infected with the virus as top infectious disease experts warn residents the nation is still “knee-deep” in the first wave of the pandemic. While there is no definite end in sight to the outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended for months that people should wear cloth face coverings in public settings to help prevent respiratory droplets from traveling into the air—and at least 20 states now have mask mandates.
But while Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Tuesday he is “strongly in favor” of local governments mandating the use of face masks, scores of Americans are actively protesting against them.
“Please, please, please, wear a face covering when you go out in public. It is not an inconvenience. It is not a suppression of your freedom,” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams urged at a June 30 briefing. “It actually is a vehicle to achieve our goals—it adds to your convenience and your freedom because it allows us to open up more places and it allows those places to stay open.”
In several states, including Florida, where new cases continue to break records, residents have thrown out false facts in their protests against masks—from claiming they cause carbon-dioxide poisoning to insisting they interfere with respiratory issues like asthma. As information about the coronavirus has continued to evolve over the last several months, so have these mask myths.
Here, doctors debunk five common myths about masks.
Myth: Masks Can Cause Carbon-Dioxide Poisoning
While masks can be uncomfortable, they aren’t airtight—and therefore can’t hold the carbon dioxide that’s created during respiration. Masks, even the N95s used by health-care professionals that have smaller pores than their cotton counterparts, also do not deplete oxygen levels contrary to claims in one viral meme.
Michael Peil, a pulmonologist at OSF HealthCare, told The Daily Beast that even with long-term use, it’s unlikely dangerous levels of carbon dioxide could build up inside a mask.
“So in a face mask, the carbon dioxide is going to pass right through and we are going to inhale fresh air through that. So there really is no opportunity for carbon dioxide to build up inside the mask to harm us,” Peil said, calling the myth “illogical.” He also noted that CO2 doesn’t cling to masks, and therefore can’t be re-inhaled. “Even if it did, it would be a very small amount,” the physician added. “But the fact is, it just doesn’t happen that way.”
Megan Hall, a doctor in South Carolina, even tested her own oxygen saturation and heart rate using a pulse oximeter in four situations—without a mask, with a surgical mask, with an N95 mask, and with both masks.
“There is no significant change in my oxygen saturation (or HR) in any scenario. Though it may be inconvenient for some, you can still breathe,” Hall wrote in a Facebook post.
Jade Flinn, the nurse educator for Johns Hopkins Biocontainment Unit and an expert on COVID-19 prevention practices, stressed that anxiety may play a role in this myth.
“People are more uncomfortable and start to stress out, so while they are really able to breathe in and out through the material and carbon dioxide is passing through normally, they are increasingly anxious because of the foreign material,” she told The Daily Beast.
While there is no evidence to support that the general public will experience lower oxygen levels, anybody who feels light-headed, headaches, or shortness of breath while wearing a mask is recommended to go to a safe distanced area and remove their PPE.
Myth: People With Respiratory Issues Shouldn’t Wear Masks
There are no known reports that masks can cause asthma attacks, Flinn says. She explained that while people might be getting anxious about wearing a mask, which could potentially contribute to an attack, “the mask itself didn’t cause the attack.”
“People might be getting anxious about wearing the mask but there is no medical evidence yet to support the claim that masks cause respiratory issues,” she said.
And in terms of breathing discomfort wearers may potentially face, not all masks are created equal.
“If you have a cloth mask you can breathe easier. If you have an N95 mask that medical professionals wear, it is harder to breathe through because they have really tiny pores,” Ellen Foxman, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine, told The Daily Beast.
While it’s not “outrageous” that people with breathing difficulties might find it uncomfortable to cover their nose and mouth, Foxman stressed that they should take extra precautions to social distance, as individuals with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
“I don’t think it’s impossible that people would feel uncomfortable. It’s not outrageous that people with asthma would have trouble breathing,” she said. “Masks don’t cause asthma, but those with breathing conditions should be careful.”
Individuals with breathing issues, like asthma, should avoid tight-fitting masks and should speak to a doctor if they continue to have issues wearing them, Peil added.
“If people have very severe breathing disease and they simply cannot wear even the cloth masks, they should simply remove the mask frequently or periodically. This will allow them to sort of refresh themselves and not be as uncomfortable,” Peil said.
Myth: Face Masks Are Useless if You’re Not Sick With COVID-19
When the coronavirus pandemic first hit the United States, public-health officials were completely out of their depth against the fast-moving respiratory virus. At first, residents were encouraged not to wear masks so medical workers would have enough equipment while fighting on the front lines.
Now, the public knows that face masks help prevent residents from spreading the virus to each other, especially those who are asymptomatic, Flinn said. Masks, however, also provide an extra layer of protection and discourage individuals from touching their mouths and noses.
“We all have a part to play and we can only control our own behavior,” she said. “There is always going to be a certain level of risk we are taking by going outside, by not wearing a mask, by not washing our hands. It’s for the greater good to take these precautions, even if it is uncomfortable.”
Recognizing that face coverings are impossible in every situation, the CDC also stated that when individuals are unable to wear masks, they should consider alternatives such as social distancing and frequent testing.
“The focus is on the wrong thing. This virus is the enemy of us all, so the point of wearing the mask is to go against a common enemy. Why should we all be convinced to do something that will help everyone?” Foxman said.
Myth: Face Masks Will Compromise My Immune System
One of the most outlandish social-media myths against masks is that not exposing Americans to germs will weaken immune systems—and lead to the “next wave” of coronavirus outbreaks once states fully reopen.
Experts say that idea is incredibly dangerous and the exact opposite of how health-care professionals are trying to contain the ongoing pandemic. While immune systems work through memory after coming in contact with a bacteria or virus, masks don’t prevent that from happening.
Comparing the myth to “chicken-pox parties” where parents would try to deliberately expose their kids to the disease in the ’70s and ’80s for immunity, Flinn warned that antibodies are only a small portion of the immune system’s response to COVID-19.
“The issue here is that it’s not a mild disease, so the people that do get sick are really, really sick,” Flinn said, comparing the virus to the flu. “We don’t have enough evidence about whether you can get sick twice from COVID-19 as well, so the idea of trying to expose yourself for the future doesn’t even apply yet. We just don’t know enough yet.”
Mikhail “Mike” Varshavski, a board-certified primary-care doctor known on YouTube as Doctor Mike, also attempted to debunk this claim in a May 10 video, explaining that an increase in cases once virus restrictions are loosened should not be attributed to compromised immunity.
“During a pandemic when you need to shelter in place for a period of six to eight weeks, that is not gonna harm your immune system, either up or down, to the point where it’s gonna destroy your flora and now you can’t protect yourself from illness. If that was the case, we would just not survive as humans as long as we have,” Varshavski said. “We still go to the grocery store, we still walk our dogs, we spend a little time in the park—that is more than enough exposure to bacteria that your body needs to function optimally.”
Myth: Mask Mandates Infringe on Constitutional Rights—and Stores Can’t Make You Wear Them
Protesters in Florida may insist forced face coverings are infringing on their constitutional rights, but residents cannot get a waiver or be exempted from wearing masks in states where they are mandated.
In states like Washington, people have attempted to get around the requirements by doling out fake cards and flyers claiming they have a physical or mental condition covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The cards, which feature a red, white, and blue eagle logo and are the size of a business card, state that wearing a face mask “possesses a mental and/or physical risk” to the card-holder and warns that any business that does not comply will be reported to the Freedom to Breathe Agency.
On June 30, the Department of Justice released a statement about the fake mask exemptions, after some cards featured the agency’s logo and the legitimate number for ADA complaints, stating that the ADA does not provide “a blanket exemption to people with disability from complying with legitimate safety requirements” and stresses the documents are fraudulent.
“Inaccurate flyers or other postings have been circulating on the web and via social media channels regarding the use of face masks and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these notices included use of the Department of Justice seal and ADA phone number,” the DOJ said.