Illegal mask mandates? Cancer-causing COVID tests? Misinformation persists in emails sent to Cooper, Cohen

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Some claimed mask mandates are illegal. 

Others said face coverings leave the wearer with dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide.

Still others say COVID-19 tests contain a cancer-causing chemical.

None of those things are true.

As the delta variant surged over the summer, many of the people motivated enough to email state public health leaders to voice their opposition to mask requirements cited some type of misinformation.

Through an open records request, CBS 17 obtained all emails related to a statewide mask mandate that were sent to Gov. Roy Cooper or NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen from July 12-Aug. 13.

CBS 17 requested the emails in an attempt to find out what specific factors motivated people on both sides of the issue to attempt to influence the decisions of those state leaders.

Because the writers of those emails are not public figures, CBS 17 is not identifying them by name.

Of the nearly 140 emails that were reviewed, nearly two-thirds either opposed the idea of reinstating mask rules for the general population, or urged leaders to make them optional — but not required — for K-12 schools.

Cooper in May allowed the statewide mask mandate to expire, but as the delta variant began its surge across the state in July there were questions about whether it would be reinstated. The governor said it wouldn’t, but later said he would keep “all options on the table” as the counts of new cases and hospitalized patients climbed quickly.

The issue remains timely now because even as its numbers improve, Wake County officials say they are keeping in place mask rules that were set to expire Monday. Beginning Friday, people in Cary no longer have to wear face coverings indoors.

The review of emails from July and August found that a significant number of the people writing to oppose mask rules rooted their arguments in misinformation.

“To be honest,” Duke University infectious disease specialist Dr. Cameron Wolfe said, “you won’t find anyone who makes a cogent argument that masks have been unhelpful or that they don’t work. It’s just inaccurate.”

About a dozen emailers argued, in text apparently cut and pasted from the same unidentified source, that mask mandates were a violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and the Nuremberg Code. But the Nuremberg Code relates to the subjects of medical research and experiments, not public health interventions.

Others warned that wearing masks led to “dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide in the inhaled air of children after just three minutes,” pointing to a study published in June by JAMA Pediatrics — which retracted the study two weeks later after “numerous scientific issues” were raised about how it was conducted and whether its measurements of carbon dioxide levels were accurate.

“I’ve been wearing this (darned) mask for 18 months,” said Wolfe, holding a medical face mask, “as just about everyone else in my hospital. And we’re not dropping like flies of carbon dioxide poisoning. That just doesn’t occur.”

An argument from one Wake County resident against mask requirements dovetailed into a rant against PCR tests for COVID, falsely claiming that they contain the carcinogen ethylene oxide.

While nasal swabs — and other medical equipment — are commonly sterilized with ethylene oxide gas, the process is tightly controlled and regulated with a doctor Wolfe says there is “no way” enough of it remains on the swabs to cause any issues.

Yet another emailer claimed there was “very little evidence of real-world efficacy of mask wearing (especially in pediatric populations).” But the ABC Science Collaborative, a team of doctors from Duke and the University of North Carolina, found the use of masks in schools cut transmission significantly in those buildings.

“Masked schools have less COVID transmission than their non-masked compatriots,” Wolfe said.

Those misinformation-based arguments overshadowed what appeared to be sincere emotional appeals from emailers on both sides of the issue. 

One mask opponent concerned about “the long-term mental harm to these children.” A mask proponent worried that “everyone is just pretending that this pandemic is gone.”

And one emailer offered a compromise — providing N95 masks, which better protect the wearer as well as everyone in the immediate vicinity, to schoolchildren who can not yet be vaccinated.

“Some families have fears that cannot be eased among the anxiety within our community,” that person wrote. “The only way to truly protect oneself from Covid is with a vaccine or an N95 mask. Either of those options make it unnecessary to rely on others for protection.”

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