The co-founder of Trump fansite The Federalist took to Twitter Wednesday to share a lengthy screed against wearing face masks to slow the spread of the coronavirus, ostensibly from a doctor.
As the U.S. nears 5 million confirmed coronavirus infections and tops 157,000 deaths, Sean Davis retweeted claims that have already been repeatedly debunked.
The Federalist enjoys the ear of a number of conservative politicians who have written for the outlet and praised its coronavirus coverage publicly despite its repeated promotion of misinformation. In June, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) said, “The Federalist is an essential, transparent news media outlet that publishes a diverse array of voices. It employs dogged, must-read reporters who seek the truth by following the facts.”
The anti-mask argument shared by Davis came from Colleen Huber, a certified naturopath in Tempe, Arizona, and proprietor of the NatureWorksBest Cancer Clinic, who tweeted: “PUZZLE: A patient came in with urinary frequency & urgency. Here is the urinalysis. What do you suspect as the underlying cause? (I will show the answer after a dozen or so replies.)”
After a number of replies detailing the proposed patient’s condition, she came to the conclusion, “The moral of that story is that #masks, by way of the lungs, not only harm the brain (hypoxia), and the heart (tachycardia) and the immune system (acid favors viral replication), but also the kidneys.”
Huber attributes the conditions to a buildup of carbon dioxide within the confines of a mask that then supposedly poisons the patient’s body. Doctors and public health officials dispute the assertion in a variety of ways.
A spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Reuters in May, “The CO2 will slowly build up in the mask over time. However, the level of CO2 likely to build up in the mask is mostly tolerable to people exposed to it. You might get a headache but you most likely [would] not suffer the symptoms observed at much higher levels of CO2.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, the risk of becoming sick from wearing a mask is very low. Dr. Kimberly Frodl, a family medicine practitioner, writes, “For many years, health care providers have worn masks for extended periods of time with no adverse health reactions...There is no risk of hypoxia, which is lower oxygen levels, in healthy adults. Carbon dioxide will freely diffuse through your mask as you breathe.”
The Federalist, a conservative website, has positioned itself as a coronavirus contrarian since the beginning of the pandemic and continues to do so, despite the havoc COVID-19 has wreaked on the United States. Twitter locked the outlet’s account in mid-March when it posted an article recommending voluntary infection to reach herd immunity, which would inevitably result in higher death counts. That same week, a Federalist writer wondered in an article “whether the nation might be better off letting a few hundred thousand people die.” Other contributors to the site have pushed coronavirus conspiracy theories on conservative cable news channels. As New York City suffered from the worst outbreak in the country in March, Davis derided it as a “filthy, disease-ridden dystopia.”
Huber is also no stranger to controversy. She filed a defamation lawsuit in 2018 against a naturopath-turned-whistleblower who publicly accused her of promoting pseudoscientific claims, including that baking soda and vitamin C injections can treat cancer and that chemotherapy is ineffective.
Replying to fans Wednesday, Huber wrote, “We really have to fight back against these illegal ‘mandates.’ No other way out that I can see.”
As for the claim that a mask may wreck the immune system, Professor Keith Neal, professor emeritus of in the epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, told the BBC, “Masks may stop germs getting into your mouth or nose so your immune system doesn't have to kick in, but this doesn't mean it is being suppressed.”
Experts say the predisposition to believing claims like Huber’s likely arises from our own discomfort wearing masks.
“This misinformation may arise from the feeling of lack of air due to mechanical obstruction depending on the type of mouthpiece we are using. But the feeling of obstruction is because we are not used to using the mouth mask. But as such it will not cause us any kind of hypoxia,” Dr. Daniel Pahua Díaz, an academic at the National Autonomous University of Mexico medical school, told USA Today in May.
Davis, the Federalist, and Huber did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The American Academy of Family Physicians offers a side-by-side comparison of the training that doctors of naturopathy receive versus medical doctors. Naturopaths receive roughly 15,000 fewer hours of instruction and supervised practice than medical doctors.
Davis is far from alone in right-leaning circles in attacking the utility of masks despite general consensus they are effective at slowing the transmission of COVID-19. Refusing to be seen wearing one and attacking those who do has become a cause célèbre even for top advisers to President Donald Trump. Trump himself has shared a video of a doctor in Houston railing against masks and praising hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug that has been discredited by the FDA as a treatment for COVID-19. That same doctor has claimed unwitting sex with demons causes gynecological problems.
Trump has recently reversed course and taken to wearing a face mask, donning one at a public appearance for the first time in mid-July and encouraging others to do so.