Wausau Pilot & Review

As Marathon County set a new one-day record in positive COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, with 190 new infections reported, a widely shared Facebook post inaccurately claims masks “collect the virus” and makes you more likely to become infected.

The Facebook post has been repeatedly taken down and flagged for misinformation, but some people continue to cling to the idea. Some have repeatedly posted the inaccurate information – even on the Marathon County Health Department Facebook page.

The original post features a screenshot of a dataset from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. A highlighted row shows that 70.6 percent of these people who tested positive for the virus reported that they “always” wore masks or cloth face mask coverings.

“This is really REALLY BIG,” the post reads. “HUGE… From the CDC… 70.6% of those testing positive wore masks ALWAYS. 3.9% of those testing positive wore masks NEVER. This means that people who wear masks, are actually ‘collecting’ the virus in their masks. The airborne particles are being absorbed into the Masks and staying on our faces rather than dissipating. A clear indication there is a correlation to more infected people wearing masks than those who do not.”

Fact checkers and scientists say the post wildly misinterprets the survey. Health researchers have consistently found strong correlations between wearing a face covering and reducing the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases.

Texas A&M University-Texarkana virologist Ben Neuman evaluated the post and the CDC report and said there is nothing in the report that suggests wearing masks could be associated with more COVID-19.

“Honestly, I don’t even know how that could be possible,” he said.

In fact, the CDC paper never claims that mask use increases the likelihood of contracting COVID-19. Rather, the paper summarizes findings of a 314-person survey and found that two activities were linked to a positive test: close contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus and going to locations with on-site eating and drinking options.

Rather than suggesting masks cause coronavirus, the correlation between visiting on-site eating locations and a positive test suggests that masks do play a role in preventing the spread of the virus. The paper notes that masks “cannot be effectively worn while eating and drinking,” so diners and bar-goers are likely exposed to infectious respiratory droplets when they lower their masks to take a drink or a bite of food.

The table featured in the Facebook post doesn’t show that mask use is correlated with the spread of the coronavirus. In fact, it shows the opposite: more people who tested negative for the coronavirus reported that they “always” wore masks than people who tested positive.

Multiple studies involving hundreds of thousands of subjects have all found that mask-wearing reduces the likelihood of contracting the coronavirus.

In central Wisconsin alone, 111 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association. Of those, 21 patients are in the intensive care unit. Though hospitals currently have enough beds, with 24 ICU and 6 intermediate care beds immediately available, staff shortages are complicating matters for health care organizations as workers become exposed, test positive or experience other illnesses.