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CDC repeatedly misrepresents mask research, mask mandates worsen depression: studies

Agency claims masks work even when masked group has higher infection rate. New director says it will forsake "precision" to "simplify" vaccine recs even more. Fauci protested in California.

Published: October 6, 2023 11:00pm

Public health agencies that spent the past three-and-a-half years promoting their preferred COVID-19 interventions as "The Science," above the realm of policy tradeoffs, are finally facing sustained skepticism from top American research journals as well as the public.

The CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which is widely cited but not externally peer-reviewed, serially exaggerated the evidence for mask-wearing among 77 such outside studies it published, according to an independent review by epidemiologists at the University of California San Francisco, the system's health sciences campus.

Just 14% of MMWR studies reached statistical significance and 30% actually studied mask effectiveness. Yet three-quarters concluded that masks were effective, authors Tracy Beth Hoeg, Alyson Haslam and Vinay Prasad wrote in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Medicine, the official journal of a consortium of five associations in academic internal medicine. 

None of the 77 was randomized, the strongest form of evidence, and just one study each "used causal language appropriately" ("particle filtration on mannequins") or "cited conflicting evidence" (mostly about influenza), they wrote. "The level of evidence generated was low and the conclusions were most often unsupported by the data."

Without naming her, the authors scolded former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky for citing a low-response phone survey with non-significant results as evidence that masks reduce infection by "more than 80%."

Hoeg marveled on X, formerly Twitter, that the "5% of studies that reported higher cases rates in the masked group than the comparator group all concluded masks were effective!" 

Forcing people to wear a mask in public has a real tradeoff, according to a study of pandemic-related "decreased mobility" and mental health in the Journal of the American Medical Association publication JAMA Network Open.

Psychiatrists at Rutgers, Harvard Medical School, the University of Pennsylvania and others found a "statistically significant, but very modest" association between such mandates and "depressive symptom severity" in recurring "non-probability" internet surveys from May 2020 to April 2022. The association was greater for "policies cancelling public events."

"The persistence of these outcomes in models adjusted for county-level COVID-19 acuity, as well as month of the COVID-19 pandemic, suggests they are not merely proxies for local severity of the pandemic," the 11 authors wrote. Among nearly 200,000 participants, the races were roughly proportional to those in the U.S. but two-thirds were women.

"The pandemic measures were tailor made to create isolation and dread at a time people needed comfort and connection," Stanford Medical School epidemiologist Jay Bhattacharya wrote of the study on X. "And these measures predictably failed to protect vulnerable people from covid."

The independent review of MMWR mask research found nothing four decades before 2019. The vast majority of the 77 studies were published in 2020 and 2021, 70 of which had at least one CDC coauthor. All but two looked at the U.S. alone, reflecting the outlier status of the country on COVID policy.

The plurality of studies (22) were "observational without a control or comparator group," which Walensky called better than randomized controlled trials (RCTs). 

Community settings (35) were most common, followed by K-12 (13), though only eight studies didn't include adults. Forty of 41 studies claiming masks were effective used causal language "inappropriately," when "at most [they] found a correlation."

The CDC didn't respond to Just the News queries for its response to the two papers.

Because the Elsevier journal requested "no edits" to their preprint manuscript, "it was hard not to feel the tide was turning" against reflexive trust in CDC research, Hoeg wrote on X.

Prasad, a vocal and recurring critic of MMWR, mocked the journal on X as "a place to publish low credibility science that supports your pre-conceived policy conclusion." 

He contrasted it with the U.K.-based Cochrane research collaborative, whose ongoing 17-year review of mask research, most recently all RCTs, found they make "little to no difference," though Cochrane's editor-in-chief drastically reinterpreted the findings under media pressure.

"The CDC has a massive budget and could run the studies and publish it in their own journal" yet did not, Prasad wrote in his newsletter. If Walensky's successor, Mandy Cohen, "wants to rebuild trust, she will start by revamping MMWR."

Cohen's revamp may go another way. She said in a media briefing Wednesday that the agency will forsake "precision" to further "simplify our guidance" on COVID vaccines, which is already one-size-fits-all, according to notes by CBS News reporter Alexander Tin.

Officials shared a sample social media post that misleading claims COVID vaccines "protect" others from transmission, though the CDC tacitly acknowledges that protection fades for the vaccine recipient starting around two months.

Nirav Shah, the agency's principal deputy director, also claimed without evidence that masking after exposure to COVID is a "great way" to limit transmission. The CDC's HIV prevention director, Demetre Daskalakis, said officials don't plan to change isolation guidance, which is five days without symptoms and 10 days with "moderate illness."

The public has largely tuned out the feds on COVID vaccines at least since the first bivalent Wuhan-Omicron shots were offered a year ago.

About 1% of Americans took the latest mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, which target outdated subvariant XBB.1.5, in their first month of availability in September, the Department of Health and Human Services told Reuters this week.

The FDA on Tuesday granted emergency use authorization to the XBB.1.5 version of non-mRNA Novavax.

While it blamed delivery bottlenecks for the low "up to date" uptake, HHS appears to have good reason to downplay the lackluster response. The agency awarded over $1.4 billion in grants in August to enable the "rapid development of even more effective and longer-lasting" COVID vaccines and therapeutics. 

Former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, who waited until stepping down to admit the agency predicted the mediocrity of COVID vaccines, then conceded masks are "maybe 10%" effective, is also getting a rocky reception on the speaking circuit.

Protesters greeted the onetime face of the Trump and Biden administration's COVID response Wednesday at his second appearance with the Bay Area's MPSF Speaker Series, which calls itself  "the largest community speaker series in the United States." 

Vaccine Safety Research Foundation founder and former Democratic Party megadonor Steve Kirsch helped organize the protest and spoke to the crowd. Protesters next jeered Fauci for his final MPSF speech in San Rafael on Thursday and have planned another protest at the Sacramento Speaker Series Oct. 11.

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