Wearing surgical masks in a hospital made no discernible difference to reducing hospital-acquired Covid infections, a study has found, casting further doubt on masking policies deployed throughout the pandemic.
The study by St. George’s Hospital, carried out during the first 10 months of Omicron, looked at infection rates between December 2021 and June 2022 when staff and visitors were required to wear masks in both clinical and public areas compared with after the policy was ended in June 2022. The analysis found that despite a Covid surge in June the rate of infections was no higher. The research will be presented later this month at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases in Copenhagen, Denmark.
“Our study found no evidence that mandatory masking of staff impacts the rate of hospital SARS-CoV-2 infection with the Omicron variant,” said lead author Dr. Ben Patterson, from St. George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, London.
“That doesn’t mean masks are worthless against Omicron, but their real-world benefit in isolation appears to be, at best, modest in a healthcare setting.”
Sound pretty worthless to me. And the evidence is in line with the other studies recently reviewed by the Cochrane collaboration that likewise found no evidence of benefit in numerous randomised controlled trials.
Dr. Aodhan Breathnach from St. George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, London. Added: “Many hospitals have retained masking at significant financial and environment cost and despite the substantial barrier to communication. We hope this empirical evidence can help inform a rational and proportionate mask policy in health services.” Well said, Dr. Breathnach.
It comes as separate research has confirmed the role of surface transmission in spreading COVID-19 – a related finding, as a contaminated mask is of course a surface held in front of the mouth and nose, and the frequent touching of a mask (and of the face while wearing a mask) will contaminate it.
In the study, published in the Lancet Microbe, researchers at Imperial College London, the UKHSA and the University of Oxford monitored 414 people living with an infected person between August 2020 and March 2021. They found that healthy householders were 70% more likely to pick up the virus when it was present on surfaces or hands. Around 90% of people who had the COVID-19 virus on their hands ended up picking up an infection compared with just 30% of those whose hands were clean. Similarly, in households where COVID-19 was found on surfaces (like kettles and fridges) more than half of people caught the virus compared with around a third in homes where the virus wasn’t found there.
The presence of virus on the hands of an infected householder was associated with a three times greater risk of contacts in the household also having a positive hand-swab, while contacts with the virus on their hands were twice as likely to become infected with COVID-19.
If virus was found on frequently touched surfaces, contacts were nearly four times more likely to have detectable virus on their hands and 1.7 times more likely to be infected.
Whole genome sequencing confirmed that the household contacts were infected with the same strain, and so likely caught it from each other.
Professor Ajit Lalvani, lead author of the study and Director of NIHR Health Protection Research Units, said this finding “helps to rebalance the pendulum” by showing the virus does not only spread through the air.
The accepted wisdom and consequently policy as to whether transmission in hand-surface or aerosol/airborne has swung like a pendulum during the pandemic. At the beginning the authorities mistakenly pronounced that the virus was not airborne, but it is. Then by 2021, the widely held belief had become that not only is the virus airborne but that that is the only or at least predominant route of transmission. Our study helps to rebalance the pendulum by showing that hand-surface transmission in households, which is where most transmission occurs, contributes significantly to spread.
Oddly, despite not studying the question, the researchers claimed their findings showed that masks were important for preventing touching of the nose and mouth. Which only shows they have no idea how most people use masks. The evidence that masks significantly reduce transmission is non-existent, of course – and the role of surface transmission is part of the reason why.
Masks have been ubiquitous throughout the pandemic, nowhere more so than in healthcare settings. Will evidence now at last prevail on this costly, harmful, pointless policy?