An emergency rule issued Aug. 31 by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services has intensified debate over face mask requirements for public school students in recent weeks, generating contradictory claims about the science regarding mask wearing.
DPHHS’ rule states that the scientific literature on the effectiveness of masks in reducing the spread of viral infections is “not conclusive,” citing a number of sources including a New York magazine opinion article and an as-yet-not-peer-reviewed study. The Montana Nurses Association responded last week with a memo denouncing the rule as promoting “junk science.”
Several of the sources cited by DPHHS were also quoted in a 13-page research report prepared by Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office and released to the press the same day Gianforte announced the emergency rule. The report was titled “How can you ‘follow the science’ when there is ‘no science behind mask mandates for children’?”, and claims the Centers for Disease Control’s universal masking recommendation for schools “ignores research.”
The report draws heavily from the same New York magazine piece cited by DPHHS, as well as from tweets, media statements and a Wall Street Journal opinion article penned by half a dozen American doctors questioning evidence that masking children prevents the spread of COVID-19. It also quotes a section of a CDC report noting that transmission reduction in Georgia elementary schools with mask mandates late last year was “not statistically significant” compared to schools where masking was optional. That report subsequently stated that “universal and correct mask use is an important COVID-19 prevention strategy in schools as part of a multicomponent approach,” a conclusion not included in the governor’s office report.
As the governor’s research report indicates, some members of the medical community nationally have expressed skepticism about mandating face masks for students. The reasons underpinning those arguments vary, from potential adverse effects of long-term mask wearing to assertions of psychological and emotional impacts on school-age children. Such anti-mask positions, amplified by Gianforte and DPHHS, may support public skepticism about the efficacy of masking. But many medical experts in Montana say the appearance of debate is misleading.
“There’s no question among the medical community and major medical and public health organizations that mask wearing is one effective way of reducing the spread of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2,” said Lauren Wilson, pediatric hospitalist and vice president of the Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.