Mask Mandates

The CDC's Explanation for Its Reversal on School Mask Mandates Is Transparently Dishonest

The agency emphasizes that children face a very low risk from COVID-19, which it has known all along.


New York Gov. Kathy Hochul yesterday announced that a statewide rule requiring students to wear masks in K–12 schools will be lifted this Wednesday. Hours later, New York Mayor Eric Adams said his city's school mask mandate will end next Monday. California officials are expected to announce a similar change today.

Those moves come three weeks after several blue-state governors said they would stop requiring school districts to force masks on children. On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) belatedly ratified those decisions, saying it was changing its masking recommendations for schools and indoor businesses.

The CDC, as always, claims to be following the science and adapting to changing conditions. But given that CDC Director Rochelle Walensky was saying as recently as February 15 that the agency had no plans to change its recommendations for schools, it seems clear that the CDC is shifting with the same political winds that encouraged one Democratic governor after another to lift statewide mask mandates.

The fact that Walensky announced the changes before the CDC had even managed to revise its "Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K–12 Schools" suggests she was anxious to disguise the agency's growing irrelevance. If the CDC had waited much longer, it would have become painfully clear that almost no one was paying attention to its advice anymore.

Under the new guidelines, the CDC recommends general masking only in counties with a "high" risk level, defined based on hospitalization rates and local hospital capacity as well as daily new cases. Under the new definition, about 30 percent of Americans live in "high-risk" counties. Previously, the vast majority did, since 95 percent of counties were classified as high-risk.

In another key change, the CDC says it will update its guidance for K–12 schools to align its masking recommendations for students with its masking recommendations for the general public. The CDC previously had insisted on "universal masking" in schools and day care centers, which applied to children as young as 2, regardless of local COVID-19 trends.

Neither the revised definition of risk nor the elimination of the double standard for schools vs. businesses is based on new evidence.

It has been clear since the beginning of this winter's omicron wave that the variant, while highly contagious, is less virulent than earlier iterations of the coronavirus, which made case numbers less reliable than ever as an indicator of severe disease. It has been clear since the beginning of the pandemic two years ago that children rarely experience life-threatening COVID-19 symptoms, whether or not they are vaccinated.

It has been clear since COVID-19 vaccines were first approved in December 2020 that they dramatically reduce the risk of hospitalization and death for adults who might be exposed to children infected by the virus. It has always been true that adults can further protect themselves by wearing high-quality, well-fitting masks, regardless of whether the people around them are forced to cover their faces. And the CDC has never been able to present compelling evidence that school mask mandates have an important impact on virus transmission.

"When I look back at what was going on just a short time ago, I am so happy that we did have a mask requirement in place for schools at the time," Hochul said. "That's how we kept these numbers from getting even worse." Since cases during the omicron surge followed the same basic pattern in nearly every state, regardless of its masking policies, Hochul's conviction is more an article of faith than a statement of scientific fact.

As Reason's Robby Soave reported earlier this month, Walensky conceded during a closed-door congressional briefing on February 15 that the studies on which the CDC relied to justify school mask mandates "all have limitations…because we are not randomizing schools." In truth, most of the studies did not even compare schools with mandates to schools without them. When they did include such a comparison, the failure to control for potentially important confounding variables such as vaccination rates and other COVID-19 safeguards made it impossible to draw firm conclusions about the effectiveness of mask mandates.

In public, however, Walensky pretended that the scientific case for "universal masking" in schools was beyond dispute. Last December, when she was asked about criticism of a deeply flawed Arizona study she had repeatedly cited to justify school mask mandates, she did not bother to defend its methodology. Instead, she dodged the question entirely, insisting that "study after study" has "demonstrated that our layered prevention strategies, including masks in schools, are able to keep our schools safely open."

The crucial issue was not whether schools with "layered prevention strategies" could operate "safely" but whether mask mandates were necessary to achieve that outcome. As Walensky admitted in private, the research cited by the CDC did not resolve that question.

Walensky also has consistently exaggerated the evidence in favor of general masking. Last fall, she asserted that wearing a mask "reduc[es] your chance of infection by more than 80 percent." When I asked the CDC what evidence Walensky was relying on for that startling claim, it responded with boilerplate advice about masks and links to several CDC publications, none of which supported what Walensky had said. Notably, Walensky drew no distinction between different kinds of masks, implying that the amazing results she touted could be achieved with the commonly used cloth masks that the CDC later conceded "provide the least protection."

This month the CDC claimed a study had shown that wearing a cloth mask "lowered the odds of testing positive" by 56 percent, while the risk reduction was 66 percent for surgical masks and 83 percent for N95 or KN95 respirators. But the result for cloth masks was not statistically significant, and the CDC's causal conclusions regarding the other models were clearly not justified given the study's glaring methodological weaknesses.

Especially in light of this history, the CDC's explanation of its dramatic reversal on school mask mandates cannot be taken at face value. "We've been reviewing the data on COVID illness in children for two years of a pandemic," CDC epidemiologist Greta Massetti told reporters on Friday. "And we have seen that although children can get infected and can get sick with COVID, they're more likely to have asymptomatic or mild infections."

Massetti was understating what the evidence shows. A year ago, based on data collected before vaccines were available to anyone, the CDC itself estimated that the COVID-19 infection fatality rate for people younger than 18 was 0.002 percent. "A (pre-vaccine!) analysis from Germany shows that if a child is infected with COVID—with or without preexisting conditions—there is an 8 in 100,000 chance of going to the intensive care unit," University of California, San Francisco, epidemiologist Vinay Prasad notes. "According to the same study, the risk of death is 3 in 1 million, with no deaths reported in the over-5 age group. These risks are astonishingly low."

More to the point, the CDC has known about these "astonishingly low" risks for a long time. If they are a sound reason to question the wisdom of school mask mandates, that was true when the CDC began recommending that policy more than a year ago, and it has been true every day since.

Immediately after noting that children face little risk from COVID-19, Massetti reverted to the misleading gloss favored by Walensky: "We know that when schools implement layered prevention strategies, that they can prevent…transmission of the virus that causes COVID 19." We don't actually know that, especially as it relates specifically to mask requirements. But assuming that it's true, how is this claim relevant to the CDC's new position that children need to wear masks only in the redefined "high-risk" counties? After losing the thread of her argument, Massetti reiterated that "schools can be safe places for children" because "children are relatively at lower risk from severe illness"—something the CDC has understood all along.

If the CDC is following the science, it is doing so at an awfully slow pace. Its explanation of this shift, like its rationales for previous reversals, is transparently dishonest. While Walensky may hope to salvage the CDC's reputation by finally acquiescing to political decisions she stubbornly resisted until last Friday, it is probably too late for that.

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  1. No masks for SotU. NY dropping masks the day after the speech. It's been obviously political for years but you guys are just figuring this out.

  2. "When I look back at what was going on just a short time ago, I am so happy that we did have a mask requirement in place for schools at the time," Hochul said."
    Prove it?

    1. The CDC admitted a long time ago that the 6 foot social distance requirement was literally made up.. it was not based on any scientific inquiry, assessment or analysis..but yet still viewed as sage advice and guidance.

      1. And it knew before the Chimera was released that masks do nothing to prevent infection. The science on that was settled long ago. But it fells right so they push that.

  3. Investigating the "Trump vaccine" in 5, 4, 3...

  4. ahhh another episode of "theSciancE catches up with actual rational thought 2 years late".

    Good luck getting any credibility back, CDC

      1. Or any of those assholes.

  5. The change was not based on case numbers, but on poll numbers.
    Science, but political science, as it always was.

    1. In unrelated news;
      This month the Centers for Disease Control changed its age-based language proficiency milestones. The new standard stipulates that 75 percent of children should be able to say 50 words by 30 months rather than the previous standard of 50 percent of kids saying 50 words by 24 months.

      Details -

      1. Why does the CDC even have such a standard? I can certainly see why they changed it.

        1. My guess? They think stupidity is contagious.

          1. Maybe it is ... in burrocracies.

            1. Is that like donkey brains?

              1. Oooh...he made an ass of himself!

        2. Children are a disease?

          1. Humanity acts like a disease, if social media is any indicator.

      2. This was in the works long before COVID arrived on the scene, I'm told. It's also a change in style instead of substance, mainly because both thresholds are too low to be missed (moving from ~10th percentile to like 2nd - 25th percentile at 30 months is like 400 words based on Stanford data graphed in the article).

        The qualitative standards the CDC offers are much more important anyway, but society nowadays is far too obsessed with quantitative metrics to pay any attention.

  6. The CDC's Explanation for Its Reversal on School Mask Mandates Is Transparently Dishonest.

    Shorter, more accuate headline:
    The CDC is Transparently Dishonest

    1. Hey, it's the only transparency we're likely to get.

      1. If the dishonesty weren't transparent, it'd be easier to see it.

  7. A federal bureaucracy lied to me? Someone fetch me my fainting couch.

    1. is on a ship in the L.A. harbor. supply chain.

      1. And smelling salts have been banned.

  8. I just assumed they would wait until after the school year ended in May or June.

    1. Queue the San Francisco school district:

      “Universal indoor masking will continue to be in effect at SFUSD as part of our layered approach to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our schools,” said district Deputy Superintendent Gentle Blythe.

      San Francisco board member Alison Collins tweeted Monday that “lifting mask mandates too soon has the potential to push even more educators out of the classroom.”

      1. Something's definitely being applied in layers.

      2. Still way too many leftists on the SF school board.

      3. Can they set up a committee to change the name of the mandate? FEE perhaps? Facial Equity Enforcement?

      4. The masking at schools was never about children's safety, but teachers' irrational fear. Education is a grouping of dimwits, ealry education, more so.

      5. Can we replace the type of educators who will be "pushed out of the classrooms" with *real* educators? Oh, nvm. It's San Francisco.

      6. SFUSD educators should be pushed out of the classroom and off the Golden Gate Bridge.

      7. “lifting mask mandates too soon has the potential to push even more educators out of the classroom.”

        Feature, not bug

  9. Under the new definition, about 30 percent of Americans live in "high-risk" counties. Previously, the vast majority did

    That's what's nice about standards. There are so many to choose from.

    1. We are all the CDC now.

    2. Maybe the real treasure was the standards we made along the way.

    3. Just like the fun old factoid the 83% of statistics are made up and 60% of the time it works all the time.

  10. fuck the CDC. and welcome Jacob, your comments section knew this shit March 2020

    1. Fuck the CDC!

  11. I never did get my free masks.
    Probably show up next week.

    1. Correct; along with the "free"* tests

      ain't nothing free is somebody is paying for it

    2. Nothing says "free" to the government like "completely unnecessary"

  12. The big issue that every seems to be ignoring is the potential disaster this could cause in the event of a really nasty virus outbreak.

    When you talk to people who have done humanitarian work in places like Africa, one of the things they will tell you is that controlling an outbreak (of say Ebola) is much easier in places places where they have a lot of trust. Doesn't matter if it is the Piece Corp, missionaries, or whoever, if they trust the US/EU/WHO to come in and take care of them, they are much more likely to listen and follow the advice given. In areas that don't have that trust, rumors are more likely to be believe that the west is just going to let them all die or napalm their village and it becomes harder to keep people from fleeing to surrounding communities.

    If there ever is a lab outbreak, a bio weapon, or somebody ends up with super aids from banging a sasquatch (without protection), the CDC and FEMA are going to have an extremely hard time getting an entire town to listen without significant numbers running for the hills.

    1. “Running for the hills” Stupid, ignorant peasants—that’s where Sasquatch LIVES!!!

      1. At least give them free condoms first!

    2. Running for the hills has better odds than trusting in government...

  13. Nothing changes the science faster than collapsing poll numbers.

  14. Sullum, of course. Spreading misinformation over his breakfast strudel.

    "The jab is effective! Masks work!"

    And this would have been the perfect article to note that the CDC should have zero credibility anywhere, with anyone, now that they have been caught hiding the actual Covid data.

    1. NOW, we'll see if the CDC manages to choke out an admission that NATURAL FUCKING IMMUNITY provides better protection than the vaccines.

      Then, maybe in a couple of years, government will start taking that into account.

      1. They have backhandedly admitted as such. Jab is 4months, NI 8 months.

        According to curated data.

      2. I have hope for November

  15. It's funny how it takes us so long to come to grips with the fact that politics and science are always intertwined. Didn't the left start that argument decades ago? Somehow they forgot their own arguments. At any rate, for every article criticizing the CDC and their politicized science we could easily find 10 other articles from the right. It's a mess. Meanwhile, China has proven that Covid can be stopped. Nobody wants to talk about that because we don't like the methods they use. The problem with any measures we use in America is that they are always half-implemented. Mask mandates might have worked if everyone wore N95s. But we never bothered trying that. Vaccines are only taken by half the population and lockdowns ended over a year ago. We have basically defaulted to the Great Barrington thesis but our arguments and postures have failed to keep up with that.

    1. Sooo...what you're saying is...our virus response has been about as smooth and effective as Joe Biden judging a debate?


    2. "Meanwhile, China has proven that Covid can be stopped."

      I know nobody actually watched the Olympics, but surely you caught some of the commentary?

  16. It doesn't matter what the CDC says because no one trusts them anymore. It will never regain the credibility lost.

  17. If... IF.... If the airborne virus was as deadly as initial reports indicated it might be.... then the CDC looks incompetent because their recommendations would not have spared one life and could have likely killed many. Worse yet, they have set the stage for a tragically incompetent response next time we encounter a real pathogen.

    I was trained in pandemic control due to being in a unit tasked with supporting medical quarantine teams. If we truly believed the virus was airborne and deadly, then we should have immediately closed the airports, ports, and all borders. Everyone should have been held to no-movement orders and truly we all would have had to wait it out. All first responders would be wearing hazmat suits with protected air sources. It would have been treason to hold a parade in Chinatown regardless of the purpose.

    Instead, we trained an entire generation of impressionable young people that hiding behind a bandana is an adequate precaution against an aggressive biological agent. If we encounter a real airborne pathogen, it would be tragic that many adults will simply put on a cloth mask and attempt to carry on just like we did during COVID-19. And they will learn all too late that early, quick response with only appropriate universal precautions will offer some level of protection.

  18. Look on the bright side: it's looking quite possible that at least we might never have to see or hear the loathsome, execrable Anthony Fauci ever again. And what a fucking blessing that would be!

    1. It would not be a blessing unless the last time we hear about Herr Fauci is as he is being brought up to the National Razor in front of screaming crowds calling for his head.

  19. Couldn't we have just sprinkled pixie dust on our school kids all this time, for the same protection?

  20. The CDC Is Transparently Dishonest

  21. "It has been clear since COVID-19 vaccines were first approved in December 2020 that they dramatically reduce the risk of hospitalization and death for adults..."
    Are you sure? For how long? What about natural immunity? What are the risks of vaccines? What (suppressed) treatments might have made the vaccines irrelevant?

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