Masks May Lead to COVID-19 Spread Without Proper Messaging

The findings are important for policy-makers on how to implement public education.

A new study published in the journal JMIR Public Health has suggested that without proper public education, mandating the wearing of face coverings by officials could potentially lead to more infections of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The novel study was conducted by a team of health economists and public health faculty from the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine in collaboration with state officials.

"When you wear a mask, you may have a deceptive sense of being protected and have more interactions with other people," Eline van den Broek-Altenburg, the study’s principal investigator said.

The investigators behind the study combined survey data that was taken from adults living in the northwest of Vermont with tests results that indicated whether or not a subset of them had been infected with the virus. They then correlated the 2 sets of data to determine what circumstances and behavior of the individuals led to an increased risk of getting the disease.

The findings from the study found that the main risk factor for driving the transmission of COVID-19 was the number of daily contacts that each of the participants had with other adults and seniors. Additional findings showed that for those who did wear masks, more contact was made with others and a higher proportion of them contracted the virus when compared to those who didn’t wear them.

The study also saw that living environments were highly relevant in determining how many contacts people had, which impacts their probability of becoming infected. Those who lived in apartment buildings were more likely to contract the virus than those who lived-in single-family home.

The implications of these findings show that public messaging on proper protocol like how to safely wear masks and limiting interactions with others, must be combined with the mandates in order for people to be educated and slow the spread of the pandemic.

"Messaging that people need to wear a mask is essential, but insufficient," Broek-Altenburg said. "It should go hand in hand with education that masks don't give you a free pass to see as many people as you want. You still need to strictly limit your contacts."