Fact check: Masks and vaccines are effective at combatting COVID-19 spread

The claim: COVID-19 case numbers keep increasing, unaffected by vaccines and mask wearing

Coronavirus cases may be dropping all over the U.S. — down by almost 75% since peaking on Jan. 11 — but one Facebook post claims that is not the case. 

“Now you need 3 shots…2 masks… The numbers just keep increasing because these interventions are simply not working,” writes Melissa Floyd in a Feb. 16 post.

Accompanying her claim is a screenshot of an unnamed news source about COVID-19 variants that have surfaced in recent months, the concern the current two-dose vaccines are ineffective against the new strains and a suggestion from former Microsoft co-founder, now philanthropist, Bill Gates that a third shot might be the ticket. 

Floyd has long been an anti-vaccination proponent and, since the start of the pandemic, shifted her focus to casting doubts on mask wearing, diagnostic testing and COVID-19 trends. 

Beneath the post, approval for her claims is overwhelming as indicated by the over 1,000 interactions, nearly 600 shares and over 290 comments. 

“Because all of this is not about controlling a virus, but controlling a populace,” commented one Facebook user.

“If a vaccine isn’t effective against a particular strain, how will two more of the same help?” asks another. 

USA TODAY has reached out to Floyd for further comment. 

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Masks are stopping COVID-19 spread

Floyd is not wrong about two masks: In mid-February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data recommending even better protection against COVID-19 with double masking.

But the claim masks have not done their part to offset the virus does not align with current research. 

A University of Iowa study, published in the journal Health Affairs in June, analyzed how mask mandates in 15 states and Washington, D.C., impacted COVID-19 growth rates. It found that there was a “greater decline in daily COVID-19 growth rates after issuing these mandates compared with states that did not issue mandates.” This effect was more noticeable over time: In the first five days after a mandate, growth slowed by 0.9%; after three weeks, it was down by 2 percentage points.  

And while these numbers may seem small, authors Wei Lyu and Dr. George Wehby, professor in the Department of Health Management and Policy at the University of Iowa, state these estimates “represent nearly 16 percent to 19 percent of the effects of other social distancing measures” like sheltering in place, closures of restaurants, bars and other areas that attract large gatherings. 

A similar study out of Germany published in December found that in the city of Jena, first in the country to mandate face masks last April, early introduction of mask wearing “resulted in a drop in newly registered COVID-19 cases of around 75% after 20 (days).”

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In other German cities that initiated mask mandates weeks after Jena, the effect was slightly lower — around 47% reduction in the daily infection growth rate. The researchers note the smaller impact was likely the result of social distancing and other public health measures being implemented and followed before mask mandates were in place.

Mask wearing was also found to be helpful in reducing COVID-19-associated hospitalizations. The recent report from the CDC, looking at data collected between March and October 2020, discovered among states that had statewide mask mandates, hospitalization among adults ages 40-64 declined by 2.9% within the first two weeks post-mandate.

After three weeks or more, the hospitalization growth rate declined by 5.6% among both the 40-64 age group and and those ages 18-39. 

There was less of decline observed among those 65 and older, an age group at highest risk for severe illness, but this could have been because older adults are more likely to mask up compared to young adults, thus having less of an effect overall on the COVID-19 growth trend.

And new data shows vaccines are working 

While it’s hard to parse out how much of the decrease in COVID-19 cases is directly related to vaccines – adherence to countermeasures like social distancing and mask wearing, acquired immunity, possible seasonality of the virus being other contributing factors – new data suggests their contribution is nontrivial. 

In Connecticut, where vaccinations in nursing homes started Jan. 8 and most residents were fully vaccinated by early February, the state saw a nearly 70% decrease in coronavirus-related deaths over the course of four weeks, reported the Hartford Courant. 

Similarly, new cases, which numbered 483 by the beginning of January, dipped to 101 by Feb. 2, signifying an almost 80% decrease. Among nursing home staff vaccinated alongside residents, new cases dropped by 77%. 

This downward trend is particularly pronounced when comparing it against Connecticut’s statewide numbers, which are also declining, just not as steeply.  

“Clearly we’re far enough into the nursing home vaccination program where clearly there’s significant benefit coming through,” said Josh Geballe, Connecticut’s chief operating officer, to the Courant in February. “As we’re now well beyond two weeks after many (residents) have gotten certainly their first dose and many of them their second dose as well, clearly there’s contributions and protections coming in from the vaccines at this point.”

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Aside from Connecticut, a team of researchers found COVID-19 growth rates declined among over 31,000 health care workers and long-term care residents weeks after receiving their first vaccine dose. Conversely, growth rates continued to climb for their unvaccinated counterparts.

The study, which surveyed over 60,000 health records in Mayo Clinic’s health system spanning multiple states, also found hospitalization rates among COVID-19 patients who had been vaccinated prior to infection were lower compared to unvaccinated patients. The researchers do note a caveat that “ICU admission and mortality rates were not significantly lower” in the vaccinated group because of an “inadequate number of patients with these outcomes in either group to date in our study.” 

More evidence for vaccines cutting hospitalization rates comes from a Scotland-based study, which found Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine reduced hospital admissions almost 85% four weeks post-vaccination and Oxford-AstraZeneca’s vaccine up to 94%, according to The Associated Press.

These preliminary findings, posted on The Lancet’s preprint site on Feb. 19 and yet to undergo peer review, compared individuals who received one vaccine dose against those who had not between Dec. 8 and Feb. 15, a period when at least 21% of Scotland’s population had been vaccinated. 

“These results are very encouraging and have given us great reasons to be optimistic for the future,” said Dr. Aziz Sheikh, director of the University of Edinburgh’s Usher Institute, to the AP. “We now have national evidence — across an entire country — that vaccination provides protection against COVID-19 hospitalizations.”

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But how do the new variants affect vaccination?

Viruses mutate all the time so it came as no surprise to scientists that COVID-19 would mutate too. Several new strains have emerged since the start of the pandemic, three of which have raised serious concern: the U.K., or B.1.1.7, variant; the South Africa, or B.1.351, variant; and the Brazil, or P.1, variant. 

Right now, these three do not appear to impact disease severity but they do contain key mutations in their spike protein – the surface proteins on the virus that attach to human cells – which may allow for quick spread, avoid immune and diagnostic detection and decrease the effectiveness of therapies like monoclonal antibodies. 

According to the CDC, the number of COVID-19 cases caused by these variants is low, although the U.K. variant has been identified in over 3,000 cases across the U.S. to date. This will likely change as modeling data from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation suggests these mutated strains may drive a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths in the coming warmer months.  

So does all this mean the global vaccination effort is a bust? Not necessarily. 

Gates has suggested, as indicated by the Facebook post, three instead of two vaccine doses may be needed to ensure immunity. 

“The discussion now is do we just need to get a super high coverage of the current vaccine, or do we need a third dose that’s just the same, or do we need a modified vaccine?” said Gates to CBS Evening News’ Norah O’Donnell in February.

Four million doses will be released on March 2 with a total of 20 million to be released by the end of March. (Photo: USA TODAY)

The rationale behind a third dose is rooted in the body’s immune system: The more vaccine doses, the greater the antibody response and hopefully the better protection against the new variants.

“We believe that the third dose at six months (after) the first dose – is what we’re going to try right now – will raise the antibody response 10- to 20-fold,” said Pfizer CEO Dr. Albert Bourla to NBC News’ Lester Holt on Feb. 25. 

But promising new findings from a study published March 8 in the New England Journal of Medicine suggest Pfizer’s two-dose vaccine may do the trick. It found that the antibody response to the U.K. and Brazil variants was nearly the same compared to the standard virus. The vaccine was even able to provoke a response to the South African variant, but not as strong.     

For Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, another recent study published March 8 in Nature found that while the antibody response was unchanged against the U.K. variant, it fell 12.4-fold with the South Africa one in comparison to the original virus.

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Moderna, like Pfizer, is also testing a third dose and creating a booster shot specifically targeting the South Africa variant made with the same messenger RNA technology as the original COVID-19 vaccine. 

Johnson & Johnson’s newly approved single-dose vaccine, which uses an inactive common cold virus to carry the genetic instructions for COVID-19’s spike protein instead of synthetic mRNA, has not proven as potent as its Pfizer and Moderna counterparts – only a 72% efficacy rate in preventing moderate disease, 86% effective against severe disease – but it has had the benefit of running trials at the same time while some of the new variants circulated. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s review of J&J’s data for its emergency use authorization found the vaccine worked against all variants but was 66% effective in South America and 57% effective in South Africa.

Our ruling: Partly False

We rate the claim that COVID-19 cases continue to rise because masks and vaccines are not working PARTLY FALSE, based on our research. It’s true Bill Gates suggested a third vaccine dose may be needed to protect against new coronavirus variants — and testing is being done on that. But COVID-19 cases are presently on the decline. An abundance of emerging data has shown both masks and vaccines have markedly helped reduce the virus’ growth both in community spread and in hospitalizations. Claims to the contrary are false.

Our fact-check sources:

  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 5, “COVID Data Tracker Weekly Review” 
  • Undark, April 16, 2020, “How the Anti-Vaccine Community Is Responding to Covid-19”
  • Vaxopedia, Oct. 8, 2020, “Who is Melissa Floyd?”
  • Vaxopedia, Aug. 19, 2020, “Understanding COVID-19 Misinformation”
  • Vaxopedia, Nov. 25, 2020, “COVID-19 Trends You Don’t Want to See” 
  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Feb. 19, “Maximizing Fit for Cloth and Medical Procedure Masks to Improve Performance and Reduce SARS-CoV-2 Transmission and Exposure, 2021”
  • Health Affairs, June 16, 2020, “Community Use of Face Masks And COVID-19: Evidence From A Natural Experiment of State Mandates In The US” 
  • Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America, Dec. 3, 2020, “Face masks considerably reduce COVID-19 cases in Germany” 
  • France24, April 24, 2020, “Germany to oblige mandatory face masks from Monday”
  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Feb. 12, “Decline in COVID-19 Hospitalization Growth Rates Associated with Statewide Mask Mandates — 10 States, March–October 2020”
  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Feb. 26, “Older Adults”
  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 19, 2020, “Public Attitudes, Behaviors, and Beliefs Related to COVID-19, Stay-at-Home Orders, Nonessential Business Closures, and Public Health Guidance — United States, New York City, and Los Angeles, May 5–12, 2020”
  • Advisory Board, Feb. 17, “Why are coronaviruses cases suddenly dropping? Here are 4 key factors.”
  • The Hartford Courant, Feb. 4, “Vaccination leading to dramatic drop in COVID-19 cases, deaths in Connecticut nursing homes” 
  • Alex Putterman, Feb. 18, Twitter thread. 
  • medRxiv, Feb. 18, “FDA-authorized COVID-19 vaccines are effective per real-world evidence synthesized across a multi-state health system” 
  • Associated Press, Feb. 22, “UK data: COVID-19 vaccines sharply cut hospitalizations” 
  • Preprints with The Lancet, Feb. 19, “Effectiveness of First Dose of COVID-19 Vaccines Against Hospital Admissions in Scotland: National Prospective Cohort Study of 5.4 Million People”
  • NPR, Jan. 2, “Why Viruses Mutate: Breaking Down The New Coronavirus Variant” 
  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Jan. 28, “Science Brief: Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants” 
  • U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 7, “US COVID-19 Cases Caused by Variants” 
  • U.S. News, Jan. 29, “Coronavirus Model Predicts New Variants Will Increase U.S. Death Toll” 
  • CBS Evening News, Feb. 17, “Third shot may be needed to combat new coronavirus variants, Bill Gates says” 
  • NBC News, Feb. 25, “Exclusive interview with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla” 
  • The New England Journal of Medicine, March 8, “Neutralizing Activity of BNT162b2-Elicited Serum” 
  • Nature, March 8, “Antibody Resistance of SARS-CoV-2 Variants B.1.351 and B.1.1.7”
  • CNBC, Feb. 24, “Moderna to begin clinical trials of Covid booster shots for variant from South Africa, sends to NIH for study”
  • The New York Times, Jan. 29, “Johnson & Johnson’s Vaccine Offers Strong Protection but Fuels Concern About Variants” 
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Feb. 26, “FDA Briefing Document Janssen Ad26.COV2.S Vaccine for the Prevention of COVID-19”
  • STAT News, Jan. 29, “J&J one-dose Covd vaccine is 66% effective, a weapon but not a knockout punch” 
  • STAT News, Feb. 2, “Comparing the Covid-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson” 

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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

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