Fact check: Study falsely claiming face masks are harmful, ineffective is not linked to Stanford

The claim: A study linked to Stanford University showed masks are harmful and ineffective at preventing the spread of COVID-19

Debunked claims about the danger of masks and their effectiveness in preventing the spread of COVID-19 again are circulating after a journal published an article from an author allegedly affiliated with Stanford University.

Stanford has denied any current connection to the author, but the article gives voice to claims that face masks are ineffective at reducing transmission of the virus and cause harmful oxygen deprivation.

The study, “Face masks in the COVID-19 era: A health hypothesis,” was published in the January issue of the journal Medical Hypotheses, but it picked up steam on social media in early April. It was shared hundreds of times on Facebook and Twitter.

A state representative in Ohio referenced it during a committee hearing, and a Republican candidate for Ohio’s U.S. Senate seat shared it on his Twitter account on April 19.

Some websites that wrote about the article updated their stories after Stanford pointed out the author was not affiliated with the university. As of April 23, the far-right website The Gateway Pundit’s April 19 post still attributed it to Stanford.

“Stanford study results: Facemasks are ineffective to block transmission of COVID-19 and actually can cause health deterioration and premature death,” Gateway Pundit’s headline read.

The Gateway Pundit did not respond to a request for comment.

Stanford disavows study

The author of the article, Baruch Vainshelboim, is listed as part of the cardiology division at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System at Stanford University.

But he has no affiliation with Stanford, according to the university. Stanford School of Medicine spokeswoman Julie Greicius said in a prepared statement Stanford supports the use of face masks to control the spread of COVID-19.

The study “is not a ‘Stanford study,’” she said. “The author’s affiliation is inaccurately attributed to Stanford, and we have requested a correction.”

Vainshelboim has not had any affiliation with Stanford since 2016, “when his one-year term as a visiting scholar on matters unrelated to this paper ended,” Greicius said. She did not provide additional details about Vainshelboim’s time as a visiting scholar.

A LinkedIn account for Vainshelboim lists his profession as a clinical exercise physiologist. He did not respond to a request for comment.

The article appeared in the journal Medical Hypotheses, which its publisher says has the purpose “to publish interesting theoretical papers.” David Gorski, a surgical oncologist who writes about medical misinformation, told the Associated Press the journal publishes “fringe science and hypotheses.”

Medical Hypotheses looks like a repository for “out-there ideas,” said Tara Kirk Sell, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University and a senior associate at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“There should be a place for dissent in the scientific community,” said Sell, the associate editor of the journal Health Security and lead author of a report about combatting misinformation about COVID-19. “The problem is it looks like conservative media is taking this as a study that says and proves this finding. That’s not what this is.”

Residents wearing masks walk in downtown Lake Oswego, Ore., on Sunday. Tens of thousands of Oregon residents are angry about a proposal to make permanent an emergency rule that requires masks and social distancing in the state’s businesses and schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Photo: Gillian Flaccus/AP)

Are masks dangerous and ineffective?

Vainshelboim’s study claims the efficacy of face masks is “lacking” and cites adverse physiological effects from oxygen deprivation.

“The physical properties of medical and non-medical facemasks suggest that facemasks are ineffective to block viral particles,” he wrote in the study, later saying “prolonged and continues effect of wearing facemask is maladaptive and could be detrimental for health.”

Experts disagree.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that a cloth face covering may not protect the wearer, but it could prevent the person wearing it from spreading the virus to others.

“Cloth masks not only effectively block most large droplets … but they can also block the exhalation of fine droplets and particles (also often referred to as aerosols),” according to a CDC Science brief on masks.

In one of the dozens of studies CDC cited, two hair stylists who were ill interacted with 139 clients for an average of 15 minutes each over an eight-day period. None of the 67 clients interviewed and tested afterward became infected.

Both the stylists and the clients wore masks.

Experts have dispelled theories that tiny virus particles can penetrate N95 filters, noting the virus attaches to water droplets and aerosols that are too large to pass through those filters.

Studies also have shown that mask mandates have been effective at mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

Claims about oxygen deprivation and other negative health effects from wearing masks also have been debunked.

“While masks can block particles like respiratory droplets and aerosols that might contain coronavirus, they do not block gases like oxygen and carbon dioxide,” Linsey Marr, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, previously told USA TODAY.

A pregnant woman is pictured wearing a face mask and gloves as she waits in line for groceries during a food drive at St. Mary's Church in Waltham, Massachusetts. (Photo: Charles Krupa, AP Images)

Our ruling: False

The claim that a study linked to Stanford University showed masks are harmful and ineffective at preventing COVID-19 spread is FALSE. Stanford University said the author of the article is not affiliated with the university. The article pushes theories about mask use that have been debunked by experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Our fact-check sources:

  • LinkedIn, accessed April 23, account for Baruch Vainshelboim
  • Elsevier, accessed April 23, Medical Hypotheses guide for authors
  • The Associated Press, April 20, Study lacks evidence on masks, isn’t linked to Stanford
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed April 23, Explanation of mask protection
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed April 23, Science Brief: Community Use of Cloth Masks to Control the Spread of SARS-CoV-2
  • USA TODAY, June 11, 2020, Fact check: No, N95 filters are not too large to stop COVID-19 particles
  • USA TODAY, March 12, Fact check: CDC study links mask mandates to slowing COVID-19 infections and deaths
  • USA TODAY, Oct. 17, 2020, Fact check: Experts say face masks don’t cause oxygen deprivation, neurological damage
  • Johns Hopkins University, accessed April 23, Tara Kirk Sell biography 

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