Niket Sonpal, MD, thought he’d heard most of the myths about wearing masks during the pandemic, but the recent claim from a patient was a new one for the New York City gastroenterologist.
The patient refused to wear a mask because she heard inhaling bad breath through a mask could be toxic. The woman said the rumor was circulating on Facebook. Sonpal calmly explained that breathing your own breath is not going to cause health problems, he said.
“There’s a lot of controversy on masks,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s really just a lack of education and buy-in. Social media is the primary source of all this misinformation. These kinds of over-the-top hyperbole has basically led to a disbelief that masks are effective. The disbelief is hard to break up.”
As mask requirements have tightened amid the ongoing pandemic, debates about face coverings have emerged front and center, with a growing number of people opposing mask usage. So-called antimaskers dispute the benefits of wearing masks and many contend that face coverings decrease oxygen flow and can lead to illness. Sentiment against masks have led to protests nationwide, ignited public conflicts in some areas, and even generated lawsuits over mask mandates.
The issue presents an ongoing challenge for physicians as they strive to educate patients about the significance of masking against the flood of antimask messages on social media and beyond. Opposition to masks is particularly frustrating for health professionals who have witnessed patients, family, or friends become ill or die from the virus. Refusing to mask and failing to social distance have been linked to the rapid spread of the coronavirus and subsequent deaths.
“I have had colleagues pass away, and it’s extremely disheartening and frustrating to see science so easily disregarded,” Sonpal said. “Masks save lives and protect people and not wearing them is simply a lack of respect, not just for your fellow colleagues, but for a member of your species.”
Michael Rebresh, who helped create the antimask group Million Unmasked Patriots, says his group’s objections to masks are rational and reasonable. The group, which has more than 8,000 members, formed in response to guidance by Illinois state officials that children would only be allowed to return to school wearing a mask.
“Our objections are to the fact that masks on children in school have a greater propensity to make children sick from breathing in bacteria that forms on the inner layer of a mask worn for hours on end,” Rebresh said. “We have an objection to the increase of CO2 intake and a decrease in oxygen flow for kids who need all the oxygen they can get during a learning environment. We recognized the masking of ourselves and kids for what it is: A political move to separate the two parties in our November election and define and create division between the two.”
Million Unmasked Patriots is one of dozens of antimask groups on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. In July, Facebook suspended one such group, Unmasking America, which boasts 9,600 members, for posting repeated claims that face masks obstruct oxygen flow and have negative mental health effects.
Experts say the antiscience rhetoric is far from new. The antimask movement in many ways, shares similarities with that of the anti-vaccine movement, says Todd Wolynn, MD, a Pittsburgh pediatrician and cofounder of Shots Heard Round the World, an organization that defends vaccine advocates against coordinated online attacks by antivaxxers.
“A lot of it is conspiracy-laden,” said Wolynn of the disinformation. “That Dr. [Anthony] Fauci somehow helped construct the pandemic and that it’s not real. That Bill Gates is funding the vaccine so he can inject people with microchips. All sorts of really out-there, ungrounded conspiracy theories. If you had Venn diagram of antimask and antivaxx, I would say there’s clearly overlap.”