Fact Check: Did The Science Really Change On Mask Mandates?

The Democratic Party has long styled itself “the party of science.” Its media representatives insist that those who hew to its party line bravely “follow the science,” while branding their opponents “science deniers.” It only seemed fitting that when 10 governors in deep-blue states began to drop their mask mandates, liberals claimed “the science has changed.”

But has it? Let’s examine their claims.

The claim

Democratic governors in 10 states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington), as well as the Democratic mayor of the District of Columbia and the Republican governor of deep-blue Massachusetts, have removed or begun to loosen mask mandates. One of the media’s most-cited medical experts, Dr. Leana Wen (formerly the president of Planned Parenthood), told CNN:

The science has changed. We know that vaccines protect very well against Omicron, which is the dominant variant. Everyone five and older have [sic] widespread access to vaccines. And we also know about one-way masking — the idea that, even if other people around you aren’t wearing masks, if you wear a high-quality mask, that also protects you, the wearer, too.

She essentially cited the same three criteria on social media to conclude that “masking can move from a government-imposed mandate to an individual decision.”


Have these three criteria meaningfully changed since the Democrats’ policy pivot?

Case numbers: The daily average of new cases is about 154,912 as of February 13; that’s approximately 10,000 cases higher than last September, when Dr. Wen told CNN’s Chris Cuomo the risk of infection was so severe that unvaccinated people should not be able to leave their homes. “We need to start looking at the choice to remain unvaccinated the same as we look at driving while intoxicated,” she said before delivering an ultimatum to unvaccinated Americans: “You have the option to not get vaccinated if you want, but then you can’t go out in public.”

Wen, who has long supported vaccination mandates, lamented that the current proof-of-vaccination card is so easily forged as to render it unviable as a vaccination passport. “It needs to be hard for people to remain unvaccinated,” she said last July. “I think it will be important to say, ‘Hey, you can opt out, but if you want to opt out, you have to sign these forms, you have to get twice-weekly testing.’”

In fact, Wen has said the government should dole out or deny “freedoms” based on vaccination status. “The Biden administration needs to come out a lot bolder and say, ‘If you’re vaccinated, you can do all these things. Here are all these freedoms that you have,’ because otherwise, people are going to go out and enjoy these freedoms anyway,” she said last April.


Many scientific authorities agree that measuring the number of cases is a poor way to judge the severity of COVID-19. Politico on February 9 quoted one distinguished expert who insisted, “We should not be using case numbers at all when making decisions about restrictions. The case numbers are not reliable.” That expert was Dr. Leana Wen.

Researchers have warned essentially from the outset that hospitalization and death rates were a better metric than the number of positive cases. “Without using local hospitalization rates and the age distribution of positive patients, current models are likely to overestimate the resource burden of COVID-19” — that is, how dire the situation is inside hospitals and ICUs —  wrote a team of researchers at Stanford University in July 2020. “It is imperative that health systems start using these data to quantify effects of [shelter-in-place orders] and aid reopening planning.”

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky insisted on February 9 these rates are “still high,” and President Joe Biden has called the governors’ actions “premature” — but the administration has yet to disentangle the number of patients suffering with COVID-19 as opposed to suffering from COVID-19. “We are not there yet,” she averred.

Wen responded that the administration must weigh both science and peer pressure. “The administration needs to read the room and see that nearly all elected leaders are moving on without them,” said Wen.

The New York Times, which reported Wen’s statements, added, “It is difficult, experts say, to issue a one-size-fits-all prescription for a country as sprawling and varied as the United States.” That concept, known as federalism, lies at the heart of the American system of limited government — and obviated against the imposition of top-down mask or vaccination mandates from the outset of the pandemic. In advancing sweeping policies, the Biden administration swept that principle aside.

Vaccinations for 5-year-old children: Whatever their perspective on mask and vaccination mandates, everyone agrees COVID-19 is not a pandemic primarily spread by five-year-old children — who notably account for a minuscule portion of our population. “To date, we do not have any evidence that the viral titer shed by young children is greater than that shed by teens and adults; in fact, most studies suggest that, in childhood, viral shedding may increase with increasing age,” wrote two pediatric researchers at the University of Pennsylvania last August in JAMA Pediatrics. “Additionally, prior work … has described that young children are more likely to have asymptomatic infections than older individuals and that asymptomatically infected individuals are less likely to transmit than individuals who have symptomatic infection.”

These facts make it all the more perplexing that Democratic leaders have often retained school mask mandates, even as they lift mandates for adults.

One-way masking: The notion that scientists only recently realized that “high-quality” masks, such as N95 respirators, protect the wearer even when others wear no masks strains credulity. A study last May found N95 respirators offer robust protection for the wearer, even when others wear no mask. This should hardly be surprisingly, since “N95 respirators … are the mainstay of protection against airborne pathogens,” noted a 2020 article — co-authored by none other than Rochelle Walensky.

“N95 masks (termed respirators in the United States) are designed to reduce an individual’s exposure to airborne contaminants,” stated a study in 2009. “Estimates for the efficiency of filtering face-piece respirators are nearly 100% for charged biological particles such as respiratory aerosols,” said another study last September.

New science or new polling?

Critics say what has truly changed is not the science, but Americans’ political tolerance for those who urge continued mask mandates. For the first time in January, a majority of Americans disapproved of the way Joe Biden has been handling the coronavirus, with a particularly pronounced fall-off among registered independents.

One of the Democratic governors who has changed his mind on mask mandates, Phil Murphy (D), nearly lost his re-election bid last November in deep-blue New Jersey. Another, Delaware Governor John Carney (D) admitted he revised his mask mandate, because “a leader without followers is not very effective leadership.” Conversely, Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governor’s race, in part, by campaigning against mask mandates.

Democratic governors speak “as if somehow they had an epiphany or even some suggest that the science changed,” said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R). “And let me just tell you: the science has not changed one iota. We knew from the beginning, and that’s why Florida never imposed a forced masking policy on school children, and that’s why we fought to liberate the masked kids.”

A similar face-free about-face took place over the origins of the novel coronavirus. Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler, who previously chided Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) that it was “virtually impossible” that COVID-19 originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, authored a story titled “Timeline: How the Wuhan lab-leak theory suddenly became credible.” But much of the “new evidence” he cited had been available for months or nearly a year. NBC reporter Ken Dilanian admitted the legacy media “dismissed” evidence the Trump administration produced in favor of the lab leak theory, “because it was the Trump administration.”

Bottom line: By Wen’s admission, overall case numbers are a poor metric, and rates are higher now than when she advocated draconian measures in the name of fighting COVID-19. While the wisdom of vaccinating young children is beyond the scope of this article, no one seriously argues that five-year-old children are a primary vector of infection. And the science on one-way masking has not changed since the outset of the pandemic, although experts (including Dr. Wen) have significantly downgraded their statements about the protection offered by cloth masks. The political and scientific establishment appears to have abruptly changed its line on mask mandates, much as it did the idea that COVID-19 originated in a lab, in tandem with public polling.

The criteria Wen cites do not indicate that the mask mandates should be dropped — nor that they should have been implemented in the first place.

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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The Daily Wire   >  Read   >  Fact Check: Did The Science Really Change On Mask Mandates?