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Meme Misconstrues Efficacy of Face Masks in Spread of COVID-19


Quick Take

A meme suggesting that face masks are useless against COVID-19 has been circulating online. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing a face covering in public since the virus is transmitted mostly through droplets produced when people cough, sneeze and talk.

Full Story

July brought a surge in new COVID-19 cases in the United States. The first several days included the highest daily counts yet as the country exceeded 3 million total cases, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the absence of a cure or vaccine for COVID-19, the CDC has recommended measures to slow the spread of the virus that causes it. Among those recommendations is wearing a mask or face covering when in public since the virus moves mostly through droplets produced when people cough, sneeze and talk. The mask helps to contain those droplets and protect others from infection.

But a popular meme is feeding the misconception that masks are useless against COVID-19. The meme features a picture of a box of ear-loop masks and says: “Why are yall wearing a mask? Even the box is saying it doesn’t protect against covid19.”

It’s true that the box of masks pictured includes a warning that says: “THIS PRODUCT IS AN EAR LOOP MASK. THIS PRODUCT IS NOT A RESPIRATOR AND WILL NOT PROVIDE ANY PROTECTION AGAINST COVID-19(CORONAVIRUS) OR OTHER VIRUSES OR CONTAMINANTS.”

But presenting that warning as proof that wearing a face covering is unnecessary misconstrues the reason for wearing one and furthers the potentially harmful practice of ignoring the recommendation. As the CDC explains, “A cloth face covering may not protect the wearer, but it may keep the wearer from spreading the virus to others.”

That’s been the advice of the CDC since April 3, when it reversed its earlier position on the use of face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, citing new studies on the transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.

“We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms (‘asymptomatic’) and that even those who eventually develop symptoms (‘pre-symptomatic’) can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms,” the CDC said in its announcement. “In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”

Later that month, the Food and Drug Administration issued an Emergency Use Authorization for mask manufacturers. The EUA specified that makers of non-medical masks marketed for use by the public to slow the spread of COVID-19 make clear to consumers that they are not meant to be used in a clinical setting. Likewise, they are not allowed to claim that their “product is safe or effective for the prevention or treatment of patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In an FAQ, the FDA further clarified that non-surgical face masks are authorized for “source control,” which means “preventing the transmission of infection through a person’s respiratory secretions which are produced when speaking, coughing, or sneezing.” But they are “not authorized to be personal protective equipment” by medical personnel, “meaning they are not a substitute for filtering face piece respirators or for surgical face masks.”

Regardless, the picture used in this meme has been circulating with suggestive claims about the efficacy of face coverings generally since at least May. Arizona state Rep. Kelly Townsend shared it in May and Tallahassee, Florida, talk radio show host Preston Scott shared it in June.

But there’s nothing remarkable about the warning on that box of masks. Similar warnings, in line with the FDA’s rules, are included on packaging from other manufacturers, too.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on social media. Our previous stories can be found here.

Sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) — Cases in the U.S. Accessed 7 Jul 2020.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) — How to Protect Yourself & Others. Accessed 8 Jul 2020.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Considerations for Wearing Cloth Face Coverings — Help Slow the Spread of COVID-19. Accessed 8 Jul 2020.

Food and Drug Administration. Amended Emergency Use Authorization for face masks. 24 Apr 2020.