Health Care

Health Department unable to determine mask-mandate impact

January 26, 2021

Ray Carter

Officials at the Oklahoma State Department of Health say they are no longer able to provide accurate data on what, if any, impact mask mandates have on COVID-19 transmission and will no longer be providing that information to the public.

That change is occurring even as one lawmaker has filed a bill that would subject Oklahomans to fines of up to $1,000 for failure to wear a mask in public.

House Bill 2192, by state Rep. Jason Lowe, would create the COVID-19 Save Lives Response Act. The bill would impose a statewide mask mandate until the Oklahoma State Department of Health confirms that COVID-19-related hospitalizations have remained at or below 300 for 30 consecutive days.

“It is time that our state takes action against COVID-19 to save lives and to successfully and safely reopen schools and our economy,” said Lowe, D-Oklahoma City. “Though it is great that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are now being distributed throughout the state, it is still necessary that we practice social distancing and wear masks to protect our communities until enough people receive the vaccine.”

Under Lowe’s legislation, any Oklahoman age five or older “who is medically able to tolerate a face covering shall be required to cover his or her nose and mouth with a mask or face covering when in a public place and unable to maintain, or when not maintaining, social distance.”

The bill also mandates that there “shall be no nonessential gatherings of greater than ten individuals for any reason at any location in the state, including, but not limited to, parties, celebrations or other social events.” HB 2192 also bans certain outdoor public gatherings “on public property such as streets, sidewalks, parking lots, parks or playgrounds.”

Under the bill, individuals who violate the proposed mask law would face fines of $1,000 per violation, while those who violate the ban on group gatherings would face fines of up to $15,000 per violation.

“A mask mandate is long overdue,” Lowe said. “We have actual data that shows mandates help decrease the spread. If the executive branch won’t act on its own, it is imperative that we as legislators put into place precautions that save lives.”

The “Weekly Epidemiology and Surveillance Report” issued by the state has long provided data that compares COVID-19 infections in areas with mask mandates to parts of Oklahoma that do not have mask mandates.

That data has not provided consistent support to claims mask mandates have a dramatic impact on infection.

The biggest difference in rates was recorded early in August with areas that mandated mask-wearing on the wrong side of the infection equation. According to the state report, on Aug. 1, areas with mask mandates had a 40-percent higher per-capita incidence rate of COVID-19 than parts of Oklahoma without mask mandates, based on a seven-day average number of cases.

By the start of September, there was little difference in incidence rates in the two areas. Then, in October and November, the per-capita COVID-19 infection rate was higher in areas that did not mandate mask-wearing.

But the report issued for the week of Nov. 27 to Dec. 3, 2020 showed a reversal of that trend. At that point, there were 73.3 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population in areas of Oklahoma with mask mandates, compared to 70.3 cases per 100,000 population in areas that did not mandate masks.

From Sept. 1 to Dec. 1, the overall per-capita increase in COVID-19 infections in both parts of Oklahoma was almost identical.

The following state report, covering Dec. 4 to Dec. 10, was expanded to include COVID-19 rates in areas that had a mask mandate prior to October, areas that had issued mask mandates since October, and areas that had not mandated mask-wearing.

The state report defended separating mask-mandate areas into two groups, stating, “Because mask usage prevents new infections but does not impact those currently in the incubation period, it is not appropriate to include these recent additions in the same group as communities that adopted mandates prior to October. Indeed, it is likely that increasing disease rates in these communities influenced the decision to adopt mandates.”

At that point, areas without mask mandates had lower per-capita infection rates than both sets of mask-mandating communities. Areas that did not mandate masks also continued to have the lowest per-capita COVID-19 infection rates of the three groups during the week of Dec. 11 to 17.

Then, in the week of Dec. 18 to 24, infection rates were highest in areas that mandated mask wearing after October, while the lowest rates were recorded in areas that had mask mandates in place prior to October, with non-mandate areas ranked in the middle. That pattern continued the week of Dec. 25 to 31, and the week of Jan. 1 to 7.

However, the Jan. 1 to 7 report showed that areas with no mask mandate reported 72.6 cases per 100,000 population, compared to 101.2 cases per 100,000 residents in areas that had imposed masks after October, well past the amount of time supporters claim mask mandates begin to reduce rates.

That pattern continued the week of Jan. 8 to 14 when areas that did not mandate masks recorded 84.3 cases per 100,000 population, compared to 133 cases per 100,000 in areas that had imposed mask mandates since October.

Recent state reports have noted, “Of course, mask mandates are not the only mitigation effort being employed, and it is not possible to determine what effect that alone has.”

The report for Jan. 15 to 21 was the first that did not include mask-mandate data on COVID-19 rates.

A spokesman for the Oklahoma State Department of Health said it was “getting increasingly complex” to provide that data “given the varying implementation dates and city variance, so there is no plan currently to include the graph/table in future reports.”