Anchorage’s mayor says masks don’t work. An infectious disease expert explains why he’s wrong

City buildings are requiring masks for vaccinated and unvaccinated people on Thursday, July 29, 2021 in Juneau, Alaska. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Opponents to the proposed mask mandate in Anchorage — including the city’s mayor — have testified in heated Assembly meetings this week with what experts say is misinformation about the effectiveness of masks in helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.

According to a number of studies, and Anchorage-based infectious disease specialist Dr. Ben Westley, masks are effective.

Westley says it’s the doubters and the misinformation, not the masks, that he’s worried about.

Read a full transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity.

Ben Westley: I’m worried. I’m worried about what’s happening in our city and in our state right now. And I am worried that people who have an ability to influence the public are imparting information that is not accurate and could lead even less people to wear masks or believe that wearing a mask is a good idea. And people are dying every day. And I understand people want freedom to wear a mask or not wear a mask, but to spread misinformation about the science of masks to try to convince people that they don’t need to wear them or should resist wearing them just seems wrong to me, as a believer in science and a believer in the germ theory. And it makes me sad for my my hometown and my state.

Casey Grove: You were at the Assembly meeting where Mayor Bronson mentioned some things about masks, like how effective he said that they were or recommendations by the World Health Organization. Was there any basis to that? Did you find anything about that?

Ben Westley: I looked, because I was in that room. And I understood him to say that he did not support mask wearing and that N-95 (masks) may block only 13% of particles, and that masks were not effective. And I looked, and I’ve just been unable to find supportive data consistent with what he said. And that’s why I worry that misinformation could have grave consequences.

Casey Grove: What are some of the studies that are out there?

Ben Westley: In Arizona, K-12, schools that required masks were 3.5 times less likely to have outbreaks of COVID. And there are many case studies of COVID outbreaks in hospitals, and what has been seen is that clusters of staff members who develop COVID-19 in hospitals are much more likely to be close contacts of other staff members who were eating together in break rooms, places where their masks were removed and they were eating and talking. So we have many studies in those settings that are confirmatory and support the science that shows that the masks reduce particles coming out and going towards a person and also appear to be associated with less COVID, in those settings.

Casey Grove: I guess there was also this really large study in Bangladesh, too, right?

Ben Westley: Yes, 342,000 adults in 600 villages. And this was basically a test study to see if they could empower people to wear masks and what intervention would work. So they gave education and mask packets to randomized villages, and showed that the increased mask wearing out of the home from 13-42%. Now that does not sound like a dramatic change. But those villages had 9% less residents with COVID-19.

Casey Grove: So what would you say to somebody who says it’s too much of a burden or it’s an infringement on their liberty, or even that they don’t work?

Ben Westley: It’s very hard for me to understand that. And the most important thing is to try to put oneself in somebody else’s shoes. And I have tried to understand that, and I’m struggling to understand it. We had a mask ordinance in place in Anchorage for much of 2020 and early 2021. The vast majority of people that I encountered at public places were wearing their masks and did not seem harmed, either that they were lacking liberty or that they were harmed medically from doing so. We saw temporal responses to doing so in Anchorage and we can do it again.

When the germ theory was first being discovered centuries ago and a man named Semmelweis realized that people were dying in the hospitals because doctors weren’t washing their hands, it took him decades and, in fact, many people attacked him and his career was challenged because he was trying to get people to wash hands. We now know that that is 100% correct, and he’s been vindicated. But changes in people’s thinking and behavior do take a lot of time. And I do remain surprised at the at the ongoing concerns and skepticism. It has it has taken me by surprise.

Alaska Public Media

Alaska Public Media is our partner station in Anchorage. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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