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VERIFY: Mo. Attorney General's office fails to support claims in discussion on masks in schools

When the VERIFY team asked for clarification, their reply included research that said children wearing masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19

ST. LOUIS — Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt was successful in securing a temporary restraining order to pause a St. Louis County mask mandate while his lawsuit makes its way through the courts. Now, he's suing to stop a mask mandate in Kansas City.

His press release on August 3 included the claim that, "requiring schoolchildren to mask all day while in school is not based in science."

With that claim in hand, the VERIFY team got to work finding out if that's true.

OUR SOURCES

Dr. Wail Hayajneh, SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital,

Dr. Jason Newland, St. Louis Children's Hospital,

Johns Hopkins University,

and the ABC Science Collaborative

THE ANSWER

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt's claim is false, and there's more to the story.

WHAT WE FOUND

Both local doctors told Anne Allred that this claim is false. They pointed out that there has been data collected and papers published on this topic, and many of them point to a decrease in COVID-19 spread when children wear masks in schools.

Dr. Newland was one of the lead investigators on a CDC and Washington University project that tracked COVID-19 cases at 22 Missouri elementary and high schools last December.

All of the schools required masks for students.

"We took cases, and we looked at their contacts, and we tested as many contacts as we could, and then we followed up to see if any of the contacts that didn't get tested got it," said Newland.

They calculated a 2% transmission rate among children who wore masks at school and took part in other COVID-19 mitigation strategies. Experts said that the average for transmission without masks is closer to 20 or 50 percent.

The ABC Science Collaborative, a partnership of scientists and experts from 13 universities studying COVID-19 in schools, also shared findings from research collected from the universities in the collaborative, which concluded, "Properly wearing a face mask (appropriate fit with coverage of chin, nose, and mouth) is effective in limiting in-school transmission of SARS-CoV-2."

THE SECOND CLAIM

With these studies in hand, the VERIFY team asked Schmitt about his claim. In that August 5 interview, he made a new claim: "I can point you to a Johns Hopkins study that shows you masks don't work."

The VERIFY team asked for a link to the study on that day, and asked Johns Hopkins University whether they knew of such a study.

Barbara Benham, a spokesperson for Johns Hopkins University, wrote on August 6:

"I checked with colleagues at the University and the School of Medicine. None of us is aware of such a study. Earlier this year, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers published a study that showed that in-school mitigation measures, including requiring students and teachers to wear masks, reduced risk for household members testing positive for or showing symptoms of COVID-19."

The study is available on the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health website.

The Attorney General's spokesperson, Chris Nuelle, responded to the request for a link to the Johns Hopkins study Schmitt referenced on August 11th in the afternoon, hours before the story was scheduled to air.

Nuelle wrote:

"Here is a Johns Hopkins study that relates to NIH funding of COVID research, that shows that no funding has gone to research the effects of masking on children: https://a2e0dcdc-3168-4345-9e39-788b0a5bb779.filesusr.com/ugd/29ca8c_81c3ca04ec5647b49421005934bfbabb.pdf

"Moreover, here is an article that specifically relates to the AG’s comment that science and data does not support masking of schoolchildren, which was written by a Johns Hopkins professor: https://www.wsj.com/articles/masks-children-parenting-schools-mandates-covid-19-coronavirus-pandemic-biden-administration-cdc-11628432716

"Here are three additional studies that also support the AG’s comments that the science and data does not support masking of children:

https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/333919

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33642617/

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/apa.15729

"There are multiple references that back up the AG’s comments."

The VERIFY team noted that the Johns Hopkins University study written by Dr. Marty Makary on NIH funding could not have been published before August 8, due to the access dates in the bibliography for the paper.

Similarly, the opinion article written by Makary, a surgical oncologist, was also written on August 8, more than five days after the attorney general's claim.

Michael Newman, a spokesperson for Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, wrote:

"We do not have any statement regarding Dr. Makary’s comments or opinions, which are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Johns Hopkins Medicine."

The study by Makary notes that no National Institutes of Health grants went toward research on masks and children in COVID-19 prevention.

The JHU study which did conclude that mitigation measures including masks on children helped prevent in-school spread of COVID-19 was not funded by an NIH grant, but rather by the "Johns Hopkins University Discovery Award, Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Modeling and Policy Hub Award, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services."

Newland's study similarly included support from the CDC and DHHS, and was published in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Because studies exist which were not NIH-funded, the VERIFY team concluded that Makary's study does not prove there is no research into children and masks in schools, and it also is not a Johns Hopkins study that proves masks don't work.

The remaining three links include an August 2020 guidance from the World Health Organization, a German study which recorded complaints and side effects from children who wore masks, and an editorial in a pediatric journal. None of these is a Johns Hopkins University study on children and masks either.

So we can VERIFY: there is no Johns Hopkins University study which shows that masks on children do not prevent the spread of COVID-19.

What's more: some of the studies that Schmitt's team sent actually claim that masks on children in schools can reduce the spread of COVID-19 and discuss the breadth of research on children and masks in schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The editorial in Acta Paediatrica by Jonas Ludvigsson states: "I acknowledge the abundance of studies that suggest that face mask have a protective effect," before going on to refute a claim that children wearing masks was the reason for a decrease in child cases of COVID-19 in early 2020 in China.

Ludvigsson also wrote, "The potential advantages [of mask-wearing] are clearly a decreased risk of COVID-19 in the child, as well as decreased transmission of the disease."

Ludvigsson says that should be balanced with the fact that children are less likely to become severely sick from COVID-19.

The conclusion to the German study includes the statement: "Sehr wichtig ist uns, dass unsere Ergebnisse nicht dazu führen, dass Eltern grundsätzlich eine negative Meinung zum Maskentragen bei Kindern entwickeln."

Roughly translated, the authors write that it is important to them that their findings on children's complaints and side effects from mask-wearing do not form the basis for parents to develop a negative opinion of children wearing masks.

Guidance from WHO in December states that the organization does not recommend controlling the spread of COVID-19 by mandating mask use in children 5 years old or younger. It adds that they recommend a "risk-based approach" for mandatory mask-wearing for children ages six to 11, and that children twelve years of age and older "should follow the same principles as for adults."

In September 2020, the WHO wrote: "National and local governments should consider prioritizing continuity of education by investing in comprehensive, multi-
layered measures [including, by reference, masking] to prevent introduction and further spread of SARS-CoV-2 in educational settings, while also limiting
transmission in the wider community."