The media has presented the issue of mask wearing as boiling down to "people who care about others" and "people who are selfish and care about their own rights more than the health of others." This is neither a fair nor a complete characterization of the situation. There is a whole other side to the mask issue that is generally being ignored: there are people for whom wearing masks has negative impacts on their health.
Here in New Mexico, our Governor has a "zero-tolerance" policy on mask wearing. The NM mask mandate says we have to wear masks in any public space, indoors or outdoors, including during exercise. It does not even exempt young children from wearing masks, nor does it exempt people who could easily practice social distancing.
Technically, we could be fined $100 for going for a walk or hike unmasked. At the encouragement of our Governor, unmasked people are being harassed and followed around by others taking their picture to send to the Governor. People with legitimate health issues are being denied entry and service at medical offices, grocery stores, restaurants, and retail stores. This is not an isolated issue, but is actually a widespread problem.
Scientific Evidence of Negative Mask Effects
There have not been any scientific studies looking at health effects of mask-wearing by the general public or children. The scientific studies about negative health consequences of mask-wearing are generally isolated to healthcare workers and pregnant women. These studies show that mask wearing can:
reduce oxygen uptake and increase carbon dioxide intake (especially in pregnant women)
induce headaches in over 80% of wearers
Most of these studies were with N95 masks, which is another limitation of this data.These studies are also quite limited in terms of sample size.
There is also very limited evidence that wearing masks while exercising could lead to severe health consequences. For instance, two 14-year-old boys dropped dead while wearing masks in gym class, and a 26-year-old suffered a collapsed lung after running while masked.
First-Hand Accounts of Negative Mask Effects
Because there is a lack of scientific data in this area, and because I know several people who have reported health issues related to wearing masks, I have been collecting data about negative health effects related to mask-wearing. I fully acknowledge that this is anecdotal data, not a scientific study.
We are in an unprecedented situation where we don't actually have good data about the potential effects of the policies that are being imposed. I really hope someone is doing real scientific studies right now on the effects of masks on kids and the population at large. But those studies aren't yet in existence, and that means that anecdotal evidence has some merit and deserves some consideration. Undoubtedly, real studies would be better, but we don't have them for the population at large.
The data I've collected is from individuals who live in New Mexico. Some of the reported negative effects from mask-wearing include:
pleurisy (infection of the lining of the lungs)
shortness of breath
reduced oxygen saturation levels
It is particularly important to note that many of the people who have reported these negative effects do not have any pre-existing lung conditions, and these negative effects are occurring across the age spectrum from children to adults to elderly. Furthermore, the negative effects that some people experience from wearing masks are induced within a short time of wearing the masks.
Here are a few specific examples:
A 10-year-old child had this experience with wearing a cloth mask: “after wearing it for about 10 mins, she began to get nauseous. She had to sit down, then went to the bathroom, and threw up. Took the mask off, and she felt better.”
An elderly male, who had been wearing a mask while grocery shopping, fainted and broke his nose: “a 69 yo male passed out leaving the grocery store, [wearing a] cloth mask that he had put on before he left his house.”
A 24-year-old who was required to wear a mask at work ended up experiencing carbon dioxide poisoning such that she fell off a ladder at work: “my daughter: She works for [petstore], she’s 24, and they are making them wear the throw away kind [of masks]. Work provides them, but these people are wearing them for 9 hours a day. First her face was breaking out really bad, and she was having bad bouts of nausea. Then she kept losing feeling in her fingers, which progressed into her hands and feet. She fell off a ladder at work from from being dizzy.
"I made her take her 2 weeks home quarantine, though she didn’t have Covid, they allowed her 2 weeks off. She was just treated at the hospital. I don’t know if you can call it a full recovery, she now has serious anxiety about wearing the mask. She’s frightened to go to work, for fear of it happening again. She has still been getting migraines, I think I left that out in the first list. She is now afraid of ladders too. Her work does still require her to wear the mask if she wants to keep her job.”
A former healthcare worker who fainted on-the-job: "I haven't been able to wear a mask for longer than about 10 minutes for as long as I can remember, especially when it's hot. I fainted numerous times when in surgical cases which pretty much curtailed my work in surgery."
At the bottom of this post, you can see the full chart of 30+ accounts of negative effects from wearing masks, including duration of mask wearing, type of mask worn, age of person, etc.)
Additionally, there is also whole other subset of people for whom wearing a mask is deeply triggering, such as those who have been the victim of rape or abuse. These people obviously may not feel comfortable having to justify why they cannot wear a mask to anyone.
Are Unmasked People Putting Everyone Else at Risk?
We know that the vast majority of COVID19 transmission is occurring in close personal contact with symptomatic people. It has been generally acknowledged that asymptomatic transmission is not likely to occur in passing interactions in stores, etc. It is already well understood that asymptomatic transmission is rare; the asymptomatic transmission studies referenced by the CDC clearly show that it happened when people lived in the same house as an asymptomatic person, shared food with them, or rode on an airplane with them.
The New England Journal of Medicine published a perspective in May 2020 by Harvard researchers that says,
"We know that wearing a mask outside health care facilities offers little, if any, protection from infection. Public health authorities define a significant exposure to Covid-19 as face-to-face contact within 6 feet with a patient with symptomatic Covid-19 that is sustained for at least a few minutes (and some say more than 10 minutes or even 30 minutes). The chance of catching Covid-19 from a passing interaction in a public space is therefore minimal. In many cases, the desire for widespread masking is a reflexive reaction to anxiety over the pandemic."
Furthermore, the science is NOT settled regarding whether or not masks are actually effective. A May 2020 meta-analysis study for the CDC and WHO was specifically aimed at providing guidance for public policy in the current pandemic. A meta-analysis combines the results of multiple scientific studies, thereby allowing the researchers to derive overall conclusions about that body of research. Therefore, meta-analyses carry more weight than individual studies. The study concludes,
"Disposable medical masks (also known as surgical masks) are loose-fitting devices that were designed to be worn by medical personnel to protect accidental contamination of patient wounds, and to protect the wearer against splashes or sprays of bodily fluids...
“We did not find evidence that surgical-type face masks are effective in reducing laboratory-confirmed influenza transmission, either when worn by infected persons (source control) or by persons in the general community to reduce their susceptibility.”
Are there studies that conclude the opposite? Yes. But that is the whole point: there is currently no consensus within the scientific community about the effectiveness of face masks. The government is mandating something that is not even known conclusively to work as intended, and there are unforeseen negative health impacts for the community at large.