Anchorage’s mayor says masks don’t work. Many experts say they do. Here’s how they know.

A plain, blue pleated mask sits on a gray-white background.
A surgical mask (Alex Chirkin/Creative Commons)

Opponents to the proposed mask mandate in Anchorage — including the city’s mayor — have testified in heated Assembly meetings this week with what many experts say is misinformation about the effectiveness of masks in helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.

According to a number of studies, and Anchorage-based infectious disease specialist Dr. Ben Westley, masks are effective.

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Westley says it’s the doubters and the misinformation, not the masks, that he’s worried about.

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Read a full transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity.

Ben Westley: I’m worried. I’m worried about what’s happening in our city and in our state right now. And I am worried that people who have an ability to influence the public are imparting information that is not accurate and could lead even less people to wear masks or believe that wearing a mask is a good idea. And people are dying every day. And I understand people want freedom to wear a mask or not wear a mask, but to spread misinformation about the science of masks to try to convince people that they don’t need to wear them or should resist wearing them just seems wrong to me, as a believer in science and a believer in the germ theory. And it makes me sad for my my hometown and my state.

Casey Grove: You were at the Assembly meeting where Mayor Bronson mentioned some things about masks, like how effective he said that they were or recommendations by the World Health Organization. Was there any basis to that? Did you find anything about that?

BW: I looked, because I was in that room. And I understood him to say that he did not support mask wearing and that N-95 (masks) may block only 13 percent of particles, and that masks were not effective. And I looked and I’ve just been unable to find supportive data consistent with what he said. And that’s why worry that misinformation could have grave consequences.

CG: What are some of the studies that are out there?

BW: In Arizona, K-12, schools that required masks were 3.5 times less likely to have outbreaks of COVID. And there are many case studies of COVID outbreaks in hospitals, and what has been seen is that clusters of staff members who develop COVID-19 in hospitals are much more likely to be close contacts of other staff members who were eating together in break rooms, places where their masks were removed and they were eating and talking. So we have many studies in those settings that are confirmatory and support the science that shows that the masks reduce particles coming out and going towards a person and also appear to be associated with less COVID, in those settings.

CG: I guess there was also this really large study in Bangladesh, too, right?

BW: Yes, 342,000 adults in 600 villages. And this was basically a test study to see if they could empower people to wear masks and what intervention would work. So they gave education and mask packets to randomized villages, and showed that the increased mask wearing out of the home from 13 percent to 42 percent. Now that does not sound like a dramatic change. But those villages had 9 percent less residents with COVID-19.

CG: So what would you say to somebody who says it’s too much of a burden or it’s an infringement on their liberty or even that they don’t work?

BW: It’s very hard for me to understand that. And the most important thing is to try to put oneself in somebody else’s shoes. And I have tried to understand that and I’m struggling to understand it. We had a mask ordinance in place in Anchorage for much of 2020 and early 2021. The vast majority of people that I encountered at public places were wearing their masks and did not seem harmed, either that they were lacking liberty or that they were harmed medically from doing so. We saw temporal responses to doing so in Anchorage and we can do it again. When the germ theory was first being discovered centuries ago and a man named Semmelweis realized that people were dying in the hospitals because doctors weren’t washing their hands, it took him decades and, in fact, many people attacked him and his career was challenged because he was trying to get people to wash hands. We now know that that is 100 percent correct and he’s been vindicated. But changes in people’s thinking and behavior do take a lot of time. And I do remain surprised at the at the ongoing concerns and skepticism. It has it has taken me by surprise.

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Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media. cgrove [at] alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8446 | About Casey

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