No, Masks Do Not Work Against The Flu

Somehow the inaccurate narrative refuses to die

We know that masks have essentially no impact on the spread of COVID. Even though, bizarrely, many refuse to acknowledge that reality, a potentially more infuriating and confusing expert and media driven narrative is that masks are the main explanation for the disappearance of the flu.

Story after story after story in recent months has (poorly) attempted to make the case for indefinite masking to combat the spread of influenza. Media outlets, desperate to justify their belief in The Experts™, have ignored mountains of conclusive pre-pandemic evidence that masks do not stop the flu, as well as incontrovertible data from the past year and a half.

While it’s become obvious that reporters promote masking out of a desire to secure their position among the acceptable arbiters of cultural groupthink, crediting masks with controlling the flu is perhaps their most confusing tactic, since it’s so easily disproven.

Well, I should rephrase.

Many across the world have gradually come to understand that masks have had no impact on COVID due to the immediately apparent fluctuations of cases in areas with and without mask wearing. The media, despite their best efforts, can’t always hide the blatantly obvious.

But the flu is different.

CNN doesn’t share a “flu cases and deaths” tracker on their nightly broadcasts. Johns Hopkins and Worldometers don’t have easily accessible charts of flu cases from previous years for people to examine. It requires research and some level of data savvy to uncover past flu numbers.

So to some extent, that might be the best explanation for why the media and experts keep repeating the lie about masks and the flu — because it requires a bit more effort to prove them wrong. And of course the media has no interest in proving The Experts™ wrong, after they’ve relentlessly promoted them as infallible, God-like figures incapable of misperceptions.

While I’ve covered this previously, it is worth updating after six months of the same misinformation being repeated and promoted. Unfortunately the relentless pursuit of forever masking has become arguably more aggressive and inaccurate.

So what’s going on with the flu these days? Let’s find out!


Pre-COVID

Any examination of masks and the flu has to cover, yet again, what randomized controlled trials, the “gold standard” of scientific evidence, claims about their efficacy.

Fortunately, in 2019, the World Health Organization collected a thorough review of the literature for their “Non-pharmaceutical public health measures for mitigating the risk and impact of epidemic and pandemic influenza” planning document.

It bears repeating just how little evidence there was for the organization to suggest that masks would impact the flu:

1. Ten RCTs were included in the meta-analysis, and there was no evidence that face masks are effective in reducing transmission of laboratory-confirmed influenza.

Ah wait, it wasn’t that there was “little” evidence. There was no evidence. None.

Ten randomized controlled trials. Ten of them. All resulted in zero evidence that face masks are effective in reducing transmission of laboratory-confirmed influenza.

Here’s a relevant portion of their discussion, explaining just how little impact masks had:

…the evidence was insufficient to exclude chance as an explanation for the reduced risk of transmission

Literally, the potential reduction in transmission was indistinguishable from random chance. This is what the media are promoting as an indefinitely necessary measure.

Some might wonder if those studies included masks as protection for the wearer or as all important “source control,” preventing the wearer from infecting others? Take a look:

Most trials combined face masks with improved hand hygiene, and examined the use of face masks in infected individuals (source control) and in susceptible individuals

Emphasis mine.

Yeah. They studied if they prevented infected people from infecting others. It didn’t matter. Masks didn’t work.

What was their confidence level in the evidence that masks were ineffective?

There is a moderate overall quality of evidence that face masks do not have a substantial effect on transmission of influenza.

Moderate overall quality of evidence that masks do nothing. This is literally the year COVID began.

So what actually transpired during The Great Mask Wearing Experiment?


Sweden

Thank God for Sweden.

Thank God we had one country that stood up for actual science in the face of overwhelming mass incompetence and panic.

Thank God because they rarely used masks, providing an excellent comparison point to the devotees of The Science™ who fully committed to the pseudoscience.

With so little mask usage, they must have experienced a tremendous flu outbreak at some point over the past 19-20 months, right?

No. There has been no flu outbreak.

But maybe there are people wearing masks in Sweden! We often hear that as a desperate excuse to explain why areas without mandates don’t have worse numbers than those with mandates — “people are still wearing masks in Texas, because many of us are smart, educated sophisticates” is a paraphrased version of responses I’d get over the summer. Thankfully, we have survey data to see if that hypothesis is accurate:

Nope. The University of Maryland Social Data Science Center Global COVID-19 Trends and Impact Survey in partnership with Facebook measures Sweden’s mask wearing at 3%.

It’s odd, because the flu appears to be totally “under control” in Sweden, with essentially no one wearing masks, yet we’re often told that unless 100% of people wear masks, they’re not as effective in reducing the spread of respiratory illnesses. Very confusing!

But that’s in recent days. What is the explanation for the disappearance of the flu back in the spring of 2020? Could that be because of masks? Fortunately, there’s survey data going all the way back to early May 2020, so we can see if that potentially explains the rapid decline:

Well. Unless ~10% of people wearing masks is enough to eradicate flu entirely, I don’t think that was it.

It’s also useful to put in context how the trend of flu cases went in 2020 compared to 2019.

The black line is 2019, the orange line is 2020. Notice how the flu falls to zero by mid-April in 2020, something that didn’t occur until late June in 2019.

And naturally, flu begins to rise in November and into December in 2019, while it never moves in 2020.

Let’s examine the numbers in 2021 compared to 2019:

If you can find the orange line, you can see how much flu transmission there’s been in 2021 compared to 2019.

In Sweden, we know masks were not the reason for this dramatic difference, since very few people are wearing them. We know the flu disappeared earlier in the year than it normally does, and never returned despite some of the lightest “social distancing” measures in the world, suggesting viral interference as a possible explanation.

Yet instead of acknowledging this reality and accepting interference as a possible explanation, media outlets desperately cling to the delusional position that masks were responsible and will be necessary to “control” the flu going forward.


The Media

To be fair, we can’t entirely blame the media, given how much support they’re given from incompetent “health experts.”

Just as one example, here’s a medical system in New Jersey with some remarkable misinformation:

Masks play an important role in reducing the transmission of respiratory diseases—not just COVID-19 but influenza as well. The hundreds of Americans who died of seasonal flu in 2020–2021 is only a fraction of the more than 34,000 who died of flu from 2018–2019…

We’ve just observed that masks played absolutely no role in impacting the spread of the flu in the country with the lowest masking level in the world. Yet what should be a reliable source of “health” information reports, with absolute certainty, the assertion that masks “play an important role” in reducing influenza.

Given that various medical establishments appear incapable of accepting reality, how can we expect hapless outlets like The Atlantic to do any better? Sure, we should expect that those whose entire job it is to research and explain concepts would actually, you know, do some research, but as we’ve learned, truth and fact are frequently absent in the battle against advocacy.

Here’s how their most recent masterpiece of inaccuracy begins:

Perhaps the oddest consolation prize of America’s crushing, protracted battle with the coronavirus is the knowledge that flu season, as we’ve long known it, does not have to exist.

Sigh. Exhausting.

Just look at this:

For this, perversely, we can thank the pandemic. The coronavirus itself may have played some role—infection could produce a general immune response that would also confer protection against the flu—but most of the epidemiologists I spoke with instead emphasized the importance of the behavioral changes adopted to slow the spread of the coronavirus: masking, distancing, remote learning, working from home, limiting indoor social gatherings. Despite the inconsistency with which America deployed them, these measures helped tamp down the spread of the virus, but they completely crushed influenza, a less transmissible foe to which the population has considerable preexisting immunity. We set out to flatten the curve, and we ended up stamping out the flu.

Unbelievable.

There’s so much to unpack here, but the simplest way of explaining how hopelessly wrong the writer and “most of the epidemiologists” he spoke to are is by simply looking at easily accessible data.

YouGov surveys have tracked mask wearing from early 2020 into late summer 2021, so we can overlay compliance over time along with flu cases in the US:

See how the flu almost entirely disappeared well before masks were worn? See how the decrease in mask wearing in early 2021 failed to lead to a surge in flu cases even though the country was still in flu season?

Pretending that mask wearing had anything to do with the flu being eradicated is *literally* misinformation. Not figuratively, literally. It is a lie.

And the worst part is, it’s an easily disprovable lie. It takes a few minutes of research to create this chart. Yet this is what The Atlantic prints:

Masks, in theory, are one of the simplest pandemic-times interventions to hold on to. They are “the low-hanging fruit,” says the Emory University immunologist Anice Lowen, because, unlike shutdowns or restrictions on indoor gatherings, they don’t disrupt our daily routines. In an ideal world, several epidemiologists told me, people would mask in crowded indoor spaces during flu season—if not all the time, then at least when case counts are on the rise. If that became the norm, Marr told me, “we would see huge reductions in colds and flus. No question.”

It’s enough to make your head spin.

There is no scientific evidence to justify this. Every single randomized controlled trial has shown masks have literally zero benefit against the flu. Flu disappeared in Sweden with no masks, and in the US before masks were used. It has not returned regardless of mask usage in either country. This paragraph is advocacy, not reality.

And as an aside, the assumption that masks do not “disrupt our daily routines” is almost as offensive as printing these easily disprovable falsehoods. Masks are a tremendous disruption to daily routines — they disrupt conversation, they dehumanize employees in retail and service industries who are often forced to mask while customers are not, they make traveling a miserable, even sometimes potentially violent experience, they are forced on two-year-old children and those with disabilities. Claiming they do not “disrupt” routines is deliberately misleading and frankly, offensive. So of course an Expert™ makes that claim in The Atlantic.

There are so, so many more examples of inaccurate media coverage it would require years of work to debunk article by article. It’s endless.


Japan & Australia

Meanwhile, Japan, a country widely praised for its “mask wearing culture,” has experienced exactly the same trends as the US and Sweden, with wildly different compliance rates.

Back in the middle of May 2020, they were already at 94% usage, according to the University of Maryland’s survey data:

And what do you know, flu disappeared there too, at nearly the same time as in the United States.

What’s also important to point out about this chart, which covers late 2018 into 2021, is that Japan’s mask wearing culture had not eradicated the flu in years past. Somehow, they still had the flu in 2018 and fall 2019! Even with masks! No one in the media appears capable of understanding this reality.

One simple chart, highlighting mask compliance and flu cases in Sweden and Japan singlehandedly contradicts the endless narrative:

It’s almost impossible to have a wider disparity among countries in mask wearing behaviors. Yet somehow, flu disappeared in both countries within days of each other, and hasn’t returned in either, ~17 months later.

Similarly, Australia, with some of the strictest and most widely heralded lockdowns, despite their tremendous failure, has also seen the complete eradication of the flu:

So what we can learn from this is:

  • If you have police enforced lockdowns and mask wearing, you can eradicate the flu.

  • If very few people wear masks and you keep schools open and have very light capacity limits in restaurants, you can eradicate the flu.

  • If you don’t have strict lockdowns like in Japan, but have a mask wearing culture, you can also eradicate the flu, but only in 2020-2021 and not 2018 or 2019.

  • If you have widely varied lockdown policy responses and mask wearing in a 3,000 mile wide country, with wildly different climates and cultures, you can still eradicate the flu.

Do you understand now? Flu is a choice, you see. And the way that we choose not to eradicate it is by doing nothing, or possibly, everything. It’s The Science™.


There is no justification for claiming masks stopped the flu or that they should be worn in future flu seasons. None.

There is no evidentiary basis for it, given that the only randomized controlled trials worthy of being included by the World Health Organization led to the conclusion that masks did not have an impact on the transmission of influenza. There is also no observational data that justifies that claim, given countries all over the world with extremely different policy responses, all experienced the same phenomenon.

What there is, however, are activist reporters desperate to advocate for policy that allows them to maintain their unearned sense of self-superiority and incompetent “experts” happy to play along and avoid acknowledging they were wrong.

It was true six months ago, and it’s just as true today. Masks have had absolutely nothing to do with stopping the flu.

It’s a complete farce, being repackaged over and over again for consumption by those unwilling to take the time to look for the data that easily disproves the argument. And if we’re not careful and willing to push back against the insanity, this misinformation will disrupt our routines indefinitely.