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Researchers reject Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s misuse of their studies to support mask denialism

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Laura Ingraham, the right-wing Fox News host, logged on Twitter one recent Friday afternoon to fire off the latest salvo in her long-running crusade against the effectiveness of face masks in combatting Covid-19.

“Told you!” Ingraham exuberantly tweeted that day in November, sharing a link to a Danish study that did not find a statistically significant difference in protection against contracting Covid-19 for those who wear masks. (Health experts have repeatedly stated the primary reason for masks is to protect the public from the wearer, not the wearer from the public.)

It wasn’t the first time Ingraham had cited a study to suggest face masks are ineffective at reducing the spread of the virus, which runs counter to guidance from top health officials. Ingraham, who mocks public health officials on her prime time program while questioning their recommendations, had also previously cited a study published in February, conducted at the University of Hong Kong in those efforts.

But authors from both of these studies reject how Ingraham and other mask doubters have portrayed their work. Each of them told CNN Business that they fully support the recommendation from health experts that people wear face masks while out in public.

“I am disappointed because there are good reasons for people to wear masks,” University of Hong Kong professor Benjamin Cowling, who serves as the school’s division head of epidemiology and biostatistics and who was an author on one of the papers that Ingraham cited, told CNN Business when asked about how Ingraham was representing his work. “I’m not convinced about mandates, but I am disappointed there has been this encouragement not to wear masks when it’s a simple measure that can help.”

“There is a twilight zone between research and politics,” Copenhagen University Hospital professor Henning Bundgaard, the lead author of the Danish study, said to CNN Business in a separate interview. “People are using the science in different ways because they have different motives.”

Ingraham isn’t alone in her attempt to use the two scientific studies to further her political agenda. Links to both studies have been circulated on social media and they have both spawned anti-mask memes and videos.

But Ingraham, who has no background in medicine or virology, is one of the most prominent members in the larger right-wing media chorus that has politicized the pandemic and repeatedly rejected the consensus from the scientific and health community on various ways to curb the spread a virus that has so far killed more than 310,000 people in the US.

As the host of “The Ingraham Angle,” one of the highest-rated shows on cable, Ingraham has not only questioned the use of masks (despite apparently wearing one herself at a Trump campaign rally), but she has also criticized stay-at-home orders and other guidelines aimed at slowing the virus’s spread. Ingraham has done this while simultaneously promoting unproven treatments such as hydroxychloroquine to combat Covid-19.

In December alone, Ingraham has said a number of things on her program that fly in the face of advice from the nation’s top health experts. On Wednesday, she ran a segment in which she railed against “liberal” state governors for implementing new restrictions. Then she suggested on Twitter that they are “tyrants.” She also suggested her viewers tune out the “medical cartel” and gather with family for Christmas. On Monday, a guest on her show appeared to cite the University of Hong Kong study as proof that masks are ineffective. In that same segment, Ingraham cast doubt on the need for vaccines in some areas of the US, saying they “wouldn’t be necessary” in states like North and South Dakota thanks to herd immunity.

Ingraham’s commentary is representative of the main message coming from Fox News. The network’s star hosts and personalities have repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus, both early on in the pandemic when action was critical and in recent weeks as the country faces an unprecedented surge in cases and deaths. Instead of discouraging this, Fox is rewarding her for the misleading commentary. The network announced Wednesday that it had renewed Ingraham’s contract with a “multi-year” deal.

A Fox News representative did not comment for this story.

“It’s the right thing to do”  

It is true that Bundgaard’s study did not find a statistically significant result showing that face mask use protected the wearer, though it did show some minor benefit.

But what Ingraham left out in discussing it is that recommendations about wearing a face mask have always been about the idea that the mask would primarily benefit people other than the person wearing the mask by reducing the risk they could transmit the virus. Bundgaard’s study did not look at that issue.

The CDC has said there is some evidence to indicate that mask-wearing can also “reduce wearers’ exposure” to the virus. But the CDC has stressed that masks are “especially relevant” and “primarily intended to reduce the emission” of coronavirus particles from “asymptomatic or presymptomatic infected wearers who feel well and may be unaware of their infectiousness to others, and who are estimated to account for more than 50% of transmissions.”

Bundgaard’s study only focused on whether wearing a face mask can offer some protection to the wearer.

“We didn’t examine the effect of source control,” Bundgaard explained to CNN Business.

Bundgaard said that as he has seen people twist his study’s findings, he has started “hammering on the aspect of source control” and explaining that his study did not look at whether face masks reduce the spread of coronavirus from infected individuals who are wearing masks.

But Bundgaard told CNN Business that he believes guidance from health officials to wear masks “is most sensible.” In fact, while speaking to CNN Business on the phone as he walked the streets of Denmark, he said he was himself wearing a face mask.

Ingraham and others who oppose the use of face masks have also cited another study conducted in February at the University of Hong Kong. That study did not find that face masks were effective at reducing the spread of influenza. Ingraham tweeted that it’s a study “the ‘experts’ don’t want you to read.”

But Cowling, the University of Hong Kong professor who co-authored the study, stressed to CNN Business that “absence of evidence is not the same as evidence” — in other words, his study’s findings should not be used as evidence suggesting masks do not work.

Since his study was published, Cowling has been outspoken on Twitter about the benefits that mask-wearing can offer communities combatting the coronavirus.

“It’s the right thing to do — for the public, for the population, if everyone wears face masks,” Cowling told CNN Business.

Cowling pointed out that public health experts “recognize masks don’t provide 100% protection.”

But, Cowling explained, “If everybody does it we can reduce transmission by a degree and it makes an enormous difference.”

What the science says

The CDC has for months been clear in saying that masks do reduce the transmission of Covid-19 and are critical in efforts to get the virus under control in the US.

Three types of scientific evidence “demonstrate the benefit of community masking,” according to the CDC.

Those three things are laboratory experiments that show masks work to “block exhaled emission of virus-laden respiratory particles”; epidemiological investigations into outbreaks; and studies of communities.

“You should wear a mask, even if you do not feel sick,” the CDC states on its website. “This is because several studies have found that people with COVID-19 who never develop symptoms (asymptomatic) and those who are not yet showing symptoms (pre-symptomatic) can still spread the virus to other people. The main function of wearing a mask is to protect those around you, in case you are infected but not showing symptoms.”

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