Pro-Trump outlet misreads CDC report: Expert "disturbed" by scientific misrepresentation

Right-wing news outlet OANN misinterprets a CDC report to say masks have a "negligible" impact on COVID-19 numbers

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published March 9, 2021 8:12PM (EST)

A worn-out mouth and nose protection mask lies thrown away on the street (Salvatore Laporta/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A worn-out mouth and nose protection mask lies thrown away on the street (Salvatore Laporta/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images)

For those who find that Fox News isn't right-leaning enough, One America News Network (OANN) has filled that gap. The cable show and news site, though launched three years before Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, emerged as a mainstay for pro-Trump propaganda during the course of his presidency. The network notoriously amplified Trump's meritless claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Before that, it has taken Trump-friendly positions on everything from the supposed "migrant caravan" in 2018 to the claim that the novel coronavirus was developed in a Chinese bioweapons laboratory. Trump himself has praised OANN, referring to the organization as a "great network" early in his presidency and urging supporters to follow its coverage as it helped him try to overturn the 2020 election. And, like Trump and many on the right, the network has been eager to politicize the COVID-19 pandemic and public health–related measures designed to combat it. Now, a recent article from OANN features such a shocking misinterpretation of a public health study that it feels almost intentionally bad-faith.

Certainly many right-wing networks have politicized the science of public health; that's nothing new. But this OANN story, purporting to report on a CDC scientific study, was such a blatant misconstrual of science and statistics that public health experts are horrified at the public health implications of their misinterpreted message. The headline in question? "CDC: Face Masks Don't Prevent COVID-19, Study Finds Masks Have Negligible Impact On Coronavirus Numbers."

In the article itself, the OANN newsroom writes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) "has admitted face masks do little to prevent the spread of COVID-19 amid mounting pressure to lift mask mandates across the U.S. In a new study, the CDC found face masks had a negligible impact on coronavirus numbers that didn't exceed statistical margins of error."

The original study from the CDC is titled "Association of State-Issued Mask Mandates and Allowing On-Premises Restaurant Dining with County-Level COVID-19 Case and Death Growth Rates — United States, March 1–December 31, 2020." (You can find the study here.) It described the impact of state-issued mask mandates between March 1 and Dec. 31 in 2020 in the 2,313 American counties that followed them (comprising 73.6% of the total number of counties). According to the study, COVID-19 case growth rates fell by 0.5% every day within the first 20 days after the mask mandates were implemented in those counties. This was followed by drops of 1.1%, 1.5%, 1.7% and 1.8% respectively within the succeeding blocks of 20 day intervals after the policy was implemented.

Similarly the mask mandates coincided with a 0.7% decrease in COVID-19 death rates every day within the first 20 days after they were implemented. This increased to 1%, 1.4%, 1.6% and 1.9% in the succeeding 20 day intervals.

OANN, by contrast, opens by writing that "the CDC has admitted face masks do little to prevent the spread of COVID-19 amid mounting pressure to lift mask mandates across the U.S. In a new study, the CDC found face masks had a negligible impact on coronavirus numbers that didn't exceed statistical margins of error." The outlet claims that the CDC's study found face mask orders "reduced infection rates by 1.5 percent over the rolling periods of two months each" between March and December 2020. It also claims that "the masks were 0.5 percent effective in the first 20 days of the mandates and less than 2 percent effective after 100 days." The author(s) conclude with a little bit of implied snark, adding that the CDC "still recommends wearing face masks, although it admitted such mandates do not make any statistical difference."

Salon reached out to public health experts who strongly disagreed with OANN's interpretation of the CDC study.

"The OANN journalist has misread the CDC report completely," Dr. Sten H. Vermund, Dean of the Yale School of Public Health, wrote to Salon. "Both their opening sentences are incorrect. CDC reports that in a very short time period, 'implementing mask mandates was associated with reduced SARS-CoV-2 transmission, whereas reopening restaurants for on-premises dining was associated with increased transmission.' The [OANN] journalists use the 'per day' statistics to give the false impression that the magnitude of the impact of mask use was small when, in fact, the benefits were remarkably large."

He concluded, "It is disturbing to see this level of scientific misrepresentation in the press."

The CDC itself questioned OANN's interpretation. "The data we now have conclusively show that widespread use of masks is a very effective way to reduce the spread of COVID-19," the CDC told Salon in a statement. They also noted that OANN's headline was not accurate, as the study referenced was not about masks: "It is important to note that the study did not examine the effectiveness of masks," they added.

Dr. Jonathan Zenilman, professor in the department of medicine, division of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, spoke with Salon by phone and openly questioned OANN's competence.

"I think they're completely misreading the article," Zenilman explained. After describing how OANN seemed to misunderstand the significance of the daily drops in COVID-19 cases and deaths associated with mask mandates, he speculated about "if they had anybody who knows how to read these things read this." Zenilman observed that anyone who has taken college calculus can understand what the CDC is explaining.

"The CDC report is basically reporting on the first order derivative of the curve, the change in the growth rate," Zenilman told Salon. "It's not reporting on the actual data. So if the growth rate is decreasing 1.5% per day, that's going to add up, whereas basically they're kind of looking at this as, 'Oh, there's just 1.5% difference between the two curves.'"

Dr. Russell Medford, Chairman of the Center for Global Health Innovation and Global Health Crisis Coordination Center, wrote to Salon that he is "not sure what they (OANN) are talking about (the study IS statistically significant)," adding that he reads the CDC's report as meaning the opposite of what OANN says. He interpreted it as saying "mask mandates were associated with statistically significant decreases in county-level daily COVID-19 case and death growth rates within beginning within 20 days after implementation" and that "allowing on-premises restaurant dining was associated with a statistically significant increase in daily COVID-19 case growth rates beginning 41–100 days after implementation and statistically significant increase in daily death growth rates beginning 61–100 days after implementation."

This is not the first time that OANN has published inaccurate information about COVID-19. In November, YouTube temporarily suspended and demonetized their account after they uploaded a video that promoted a false cure for the disease. YouTube delivered a "strike" against OANN's account for violating its policy that prohibits claiming that there is a guaranteed cure against the virus.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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