Thursday, May 13, 2021

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If Your Time is short

  • Stanford University has no connection with a Medical Hypotheses journal article, written by an exercise physiologist who isn’t affiliated with Stanford, that makes debunked claims about mask wearing and COVID-19.

Headlines widely shared on Facebook tried to invoke the credibility of Stanford University in falsely claiming that a study found masks do not block COVID-19 and can cause health problems, including death.

A headline from Gateway Pundit, a conservative website, stated it this way:

“Stanford Study Results: Face masks are Ineffective to Block Transmission of COVID-19 and Actually Can Cause Health Deterioration and Premature Death.”

Similar headlines appeared on other websites, including NOQ Report, which the Gateway Pundit quoted.

The posts were flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

What’s being labeled as a “study” is actually an article in the journal Medical Hypotheses. Stanford University says it had nothing to do with the journal article. Furthermore, the article makes false claims about the ill effects of mask wearing.

The article “is paper-thin nonsense,” said biology professor Benjamin Neuman, chief viologist Texas A&M University’s Global Health Research Complex. “It is unreferenced personal opinion that misquotes a few scientific papers.”

Not a Stanford study (or scientist)

Medical Hypotheses says its purpose “is to publish interesting theoretical papers. The journal will consider radical, speculative and non-mainstream scientific ideas provided they are coherently expressed.”

The article about mask wearing was published in November and was authored by Baruch Vainshelboim. The website describes his affiliation this way: “Cardiology Division, Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System/Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, United States.”

The VA facility is affiliated with Stanford, but Vainshelboim hasn’t been affiliated with the VA or Stanford since 2016, when he served for a year as a visiting scholar, the university told us.

Stanford also said it had nothing to do with the article and that it has asked the journal for a correction.

Vainshelboim identifies himself in his LinkedIn profile as a clinical exercise physiologist, with a doctorate from the University of Porto in Portugal.

Shortfalls of the research

The article asserts that evidence about mask wearing to prevent COVID-19 is lacking, but that adverse health effects are “established.” One section claims masks cause hypoxemia, hypercapnia, shortness of breath, toxicity and increased muscle tension, which we fact-checked and rated False.

“In genuine scientific research, one either has to do new experiments, or analyze relevant data from an appropriate source. This does neither — the scientific studies that it mentions are all misquoted, or cite conversations rather than experiments,” Neuman said. The article “did not generate any new data, and does not appear to have analyzed any data of substance. Without any of the stuff that gives a scientific paper substance, it is hard to think of this as anything more than personal opinion, from a person with no particular relevant experience or understanding.”

The Gateway Pundit’s headline went on to make a broad claim that masks don’t block COVID-19 and can cause health deterioration including premature death.

The Medical Hypotheses article “does not provide any strong evidence for the statement,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “There has never been a question that a mask decreases the chance a symptomatic person spreads COVID.”

What evidence about masks shows

As we’ve reported, masks are most effective as “source control,” which means preventing infected people from spreading the virus to other people.

Respiratory droplets carrying the virus are expelled into the air when infected people cough, talk, sneeze, or breathe. These droplets quickly evaporate and shrink to become tiny airborne particles.

But if an infected person is wearing a mask, it will catch and contain the larger droplets in the humid space between the person’s mouth and the mask. In this environment, droplets take nearly a hundred times as long to transform into airborne particles. So masks reduce the spread of infectious particles.

This makes a meaningful difference when everyone is wearing masks. If you’re the only one wearing a mask in a public location, it won’t necessarily protect you from being infected. But if everybody is wearing a mask, your odds of infection will go down by quite a bit.

Public health experts have based their guidance on a variety of scientific studies: systematic reviews, ecological studies and laboratory studies.

PolitiFact has rated False a claim that masks “will kill quite a few people, it’s well known that they reduce blood oxygen levels and those with respiratory and cardiac disorders will die.” We rated False a claim that wearing masks for the coronavirus “decreases oxygen intake, increases toxin inhalation, shuts down immune system, increases virus risk, scientifically inaccurate, effectiveness not studied. And we rated False a claim that wearing face masks is more harmful to your health than going without one.

Our ruling

Headlines from bloggers said a “Stanford study” found that masks were ineffective and could even lead to death.

Stanford University has no connection with a Medical Hypotheses journal article, written by an exercise physiologist who isn’t affiliated with Stanford, that makes debunked claims about mask wearing and COVID-19.

We rate the headline False.

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