Dangers Behind Anti-maskers and Anti-vaxxers: How to Combat Both

Alicia Gallegos

September 09, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Niket Sonpal, MD, thought he'd heard most of the myths about wearing masks during the pandemic, but the recent claim from a patient was a new one for the New York City gastroenterologist.

The patient refused to wear a mask because she heard inhaling bad breath through a mask could be toxic. The woman said the rumor was circulating on Facebook. Sonpal calmly explained that breathing your own breath is not going to cause health problems, he said.

"There's a lot of controversy on masks," he said. "Unfortunately, it's really just a lack of education and buy-in. Social media is the primary source of all this misinformation. These kinds of over-the-top hyperbole has basically led to a disbelief that masks are effective. The disbelief is hard to break up."

As mask requirements have tightened amid the ongoing pandemic, debates about face coverings have emerged front and center, with a growing number of people opposing mask usage. So-called anti-maskers dispute the benefits of wearing masks and many contend that face coverings decrease oxygen flow and can lead to illness. Sentiment against masks have led to protests nationwide, ignited public conflicts in some areas, and even generated lawsuits over mask mandates.

The issue presents an ongoing challenge for physicians as they strive to educate patients about the significance of masking against the flood of anti-mask messages on social media and beyond. Opposition to masks is particularly frustrating for health professionals who have witnessed patients, family, or friends become ill or die from the virus. Refusing to mask and failing to social distance have been linked to the rapid spread of the coronavirus and subsequent deaths.

"I have had colleagues pass away, and it's extremely disheartening and frustrating to see science so easily disregarded," Sonpal said. "Masks save lives and protect people and not wearing them is simply a lack of respect, not just for your fellow colleagues, but for a member of your species."

Michael Rebresh, who helped create the anti-mask group Million Unmasked Patriots, says his group's objections to masks are rational and reasonable. The group, which has more than 8000 members, formed in response to guidance by Illinois state officials that children would only be allowed to return to school wearing a mask.

"Our objections are to the fact that masks on children in school have a greater propensity to make children sick from breathing in bacteria that forms on the inner layer of a mask worn for hours on end," Rebresh said. "We have an objection to the increase of CO2 intake and a decrease in oxygen flow for kids who need all the oxygen they can get during a learning environment. We recognized the masking of ourselves and kids for what it is: A political move to separate the two parties in our November election and define and create division between the two."

Million Unmasked Patriots is one of dozens of anti-mask groups on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. In July, Facebook suspended one such group, Unmasking America, which boasts 9600 members, for posting repeated claims that face masks obstruct oxygen flow and have negative mental health effects.

Experts say the antiscience rhetoric is far from new. The anti-mask movement in many ways, shares similarities with that of the anti-vaccine movement, says Todd Wolynn, MD, a Pittsburgh pediatrician and co-founder of Shots Heard Round the World, an organization that defends vaccine advocates against coordinated online attacks by anti-vaxxers. Those espousing anti-mask views often relay similar or the same disinformation pushed by those with anti-vaccine views, Wolynn said.

"A lot of it is conspiracy-laden," said Wolynn of the disinformation. "That Dr. [Anthony] Fauci somehow helped construct the pandemic and that it's not real. That Bill Gates is funding the vaccine so he can inject people with microchips. All sorts of really out-there, ungrounded conspiracy theories. If you had Venn diagram of anti-mask and anti-vaxx, I would say there's clearly overlap."

Parallels Between Anti-maskers, Anti-vaxxers

Opponents to masks fall on a spectrum, explains Vineet Arora, MD, a hospitalist and associate chief medical officer–clinical learning environment at University of Chicago Medicine. People who believe conspiracy theories and push misinformation are on one end, she said. There are also those who generally don't believe the seriousness of the pandemic, feel their risk is minimal, or doubt the benefits of masks.

The two trains of thought resemble the distinction among parents who are anti-vaccine and those who are simply "vaccine-hesitant," says Arora, who co-authored a recent article about masking and misinformation that addresses anti-vaccine attitudes.

"While the anti-mask sentiment gets a lot of attention, I think it's important to highlight there's a lot of vocal anti-mask sentiment since most people are supportive of masks," she said. "There might be people sitting on the fence who are just unsure about wearing a mask. That's understandable because the science and the communication has evolved. There was a lot of early mixed messages about masking. Anytime you have confusion about the science or the science is evolving, it's easy to have misinformation and then have that take off as myth."

Just as anti-vaxxers work to swing the opinion of the vaccine-hesitant, anti-maskers are vying with public health advocates for the support of the mask-hesitant, she said. Creating doubt in public health authorities is one way they are gaining followers. Anti-maskers often question and scrutinize past messaging about masks by public health officials, claiming that because guidance on masks has changed over time, the science behind masks and current guidance can't be trusted, Wolynn said. Similarly, anti-vaxxers frequently question past actions by public health officials, such as the Tuskegee Experiment (which began in 1932), to try to poke holes in the credibility of public health officials and their advice.

Both the anti-mask and anti-vaccine movements also tend to base their resistance on a personal liberties argument, adds Jacqueline Winfield Fincher, MD, president for the American College of Physicians (ACP) and an internist based in Thomson, Georgia. Anti-maskers contend they should be free to decide whether to wear face coverings and that rules requiring masks infringe upon their civil liberties. Similarly, anti-vaxxers argue they should be free to decide whether to vaccinate their children and contend vaccine mandates violate their personal liberties.

Taking a deeper look, fear and control are two likely drivers of anti-masking and anti-vaccine attitudes, Fincher said. Those refusing to wear masks may feel they have no control over the pandemic or its impacts, but they can control how they respond to mask-wearing requirements, she said.

Anti-vaccine parents often want more control over their children's healthcare and falsely believe that vaccines are injecting something harmful into their children or may lead to harmful reactions.

"It's a control issue and a defense mechanism," she said. "Some people may feel helpless to deal with the pandemic or believe since it is not affecting them or their family, that it is not real. 'If I just deny it and I don't acknowledge facts, I don't have to worry about it or do anything about it, and therefore I will have more control over my day-to-day life.'"

Groups Fueling Each Other

In some cases, anti-mask and anti-vaxx groups are joining forces or adopting dual-causes.

In California for instance, longtime opponents to vaccines are now objecting to mask policies as similar infringement to their bodily autonomy. Demonstrations in Texas, Idaho, and Michigan against mask mandates and other COVID-19 requirements have drawn support from anti-vaccine activists and incorporated anti-vaxx propaganda.

In Illinois, Million Unmasked Patriots, formally the Million Unmasked March, has received widespread attention for protesting both masks for returning schoolchildren and a future COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

A July protest planned by the anti-mask group triggered a letter by Arora and 500 other healthcare professionals to Illinois lawmakers decrying the group's views and urging the state to move forward with universal masking in schools.

"What's happening is those who are distrustful of government and public health and science are joining together," said Arora, who co-authored a piece about the problem on KevinMD.com. "It's important to address both movements together because they can quickly feed off each other and build in momentum. At the heart of both is really this deep skepticism of science."

Rebresh of Million Unmasked Patriots, said most of his members are not opposed to all vaccines, but rather they are opposed to "untested vaccines." The primary concern is the inability to research long-term effects of a COVID-19 vaccine before its approval, he said.

Rebresh disagrees with the anti-mask movement being compared with the anti-vaccine movement. The two groups are "motivated by different things and a different set of circumstances drive their opinions," he said. However, Rebresh believes that potential harm resulting from "mass vaccinations" is a valid concern. For this reason, he and his wife chose for their children to receive their vaccinations individually over a series of weeks, rather than the "kiddie cocktail of vaccines," at a single visit, he said.

Vaccine scientist Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, said the anti-vaccine movement appears to have grown stronger from the pandemic fueled by fresh conspiracies and new alliances. Anti-vaccine sentiment has been gaining steam over the last several years and collecting more allies from the far-right, said Hotez, dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine and co-director for the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

"Now what you're seeing is yet another expansion this year, with anti-vaccine groups, under the banner of 'health freedom,' campaigning against social distancing and wearing masks and contact tracing," he said. "What was an anti-vaccine movement has now become a full-blown antiscience movement and an anti-public health movement. It's causing a lot of damage and I believe costing a lot of American lives."

Neil F. Johnson, PhD, who has studied the anti-vaccine movement and its social media proliferation during the pandemic, said online comments by anti-vaxxers frequently condemn mask usage and showcase memes making fun of masks.

"In those same narratives about opposing vaccines for COVID, we see a lot of discussion against masks," said Johnson, a physics professor at George Washington University in Washington, DC. "If you don't believe in the official picture of COVID, you don't believe the policies or the advice that's given about COVID."

An analysis by Johnson that examined 1300 Facebook pages found that while anti-vaxxers have fewer followers than pro-vaccine pages, anti-vaccine pages are more numerous, faster growing, and are more often connected to unrelated, undecided pages. Conversely, pages that advocate the benefits of vaccinations and explain the science behind immunizations are largely disconnected from such undecided communities, according to the study, published May 13 in Nature.

The study suggests the anti-vaccine movement is making influential strides during the pandemic and connecting with people who are undecided, while public health advocates are not building the same bridges, Johnson said.

"I think it's hugely dangerous, because I don't know any other moment in science or in public health when there was so much uncertainty in something affecting everybody," he said. "Every policy that will be coming, everything depends on people buying into the official message. Once you have the seeds of doubt, that's a very difficult thing to overcome. It's an unprecedented challenge."

How Physicians and Clinicians Can Help

A more aggressive approach is necessary when it comes to taking down antiscience content on social media, says Hotez. Too often, misinformation and antiscience rhetoric is allowed to linger on popular sites such as Facebook and Amazon.

Wolynn agrees. On personal or business platforms, it's crucial to ban, hide, and delete such comments as quickly as possible, he said. On public sites, purposeful disinformation should be immediately reported to the platform.

At the same time, Wolynn said it's essential to support those who make sound, science-based comments in social media forums.

"If you see someone who is pushing accurate, evidence-based information, and they come under attack, they should be supported and defended and empowered," Wolynn said. "Shots Heard Round the World is doing all of those things, including galvanizing and recruiting more people to help get their voices out there."

Expanded visibility by physicians and scientists would greatly help counter the spread of antiscience sentiment, adds Hotez.

"Too often, antiscience movements are able to flourish because scientists and physicians are invisible," he said. "They're too focused on either clinical practices or in the case of physician scientists, on grants and papers and not enough attention to public engagement. We're going to have to change that around. We need to hear more from scientists directly."

To that end, Wolynn said healthcare professionals, including medical students and residents, need to have formal training in communications, media, and social media as part of their education — and more support from employers to engage through social media.

"That's where the fight is," Wolynn said. "You can be the best diagnostician, the best clinician. You can make the right diagnosis and prescribe the right medication, but if families don't hear what you're saying, you're not going to be effective. If you can't be on the platform where they're being influenced, we're losing the battle."

Speaking to Your Mask-Hesitant Patients

Concentrating on those who are uncertain about masks is particularly key for physicians and public health advocates as the pandemic continues, says Arora.

"It's important for us to focus on the mask-hesitant who often don't get the attention they need," she said.

She suggests bringing up the subject of masks with patients during visits, asking about mask usage, discussing rumors they've heard, and emphasizing why masks are important. Be a role model by wearing a mask in your community and on social media, she added.

Some patients have real concerns about not being able to breathe through masks or anxiety disorders that can be aggravated even by the thought of wearing a mask, noted Susan R. Bailey, MD, president for the American Medical Association. Bailey, an immunologist, recently counseled a patient with a deviated nasal septum in addition to a panic disorder who was worried about wearing a mask, she said. Bailey listened to the patient's concerns, discussed his health conditions, and proposed an alternative face covering that might make him more comfortable.

"Every patient is different," Bailey said. "It's important for us to remember that each person who is reluctant to wear a mask has their own reasons. It's important for us to express some empathy — to agree with them, yes, masks are hot and inconvenient — and help understand their questions, which you may be able to answer to their satisfaction. There are patients that have legitimate questions and a physician caring about how they feel, can make all the difference."

Physicians can also get involved with the AMA's #MaskUp campaign, an effort to normalize mask wearing and debunk myths associated with masks. The campaign includes social media materials, slogans doctors can tweet, and profile pictures they can use on social media. The campaign's toolkit includes images, videos, and information that physicians can share with patients and the public.

Enforcing strong mask policies at your practice and ensuring all staff are modeling appropriate mask behavior is also important, adds Fincher of the ACP. The college recently issued a policy supporting mask usage in community settings.

If a patient conveys an anti-mask belief, Fincher suggests not directly challenging the person's views, but listening to them and offering objective data, discussing the science behind masks, and directing them to credible sources.

"Doctors are used to this. We recommend a lot of things to patients that they don't want to do," Fincher said. "If a patient feels attacked, they act defensively. But if you base your explanation in more objective terms with data, numbers, and personalize the risks and benefits of a vaccine, a healthy change in behavior, or a medication, then patients are more likely to hear your concerns and do the right thing. Having a long-term relationship with a trusted physician makes all of these issues much easier to discuss and to implement the best plan for the individual patient."

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