Mask mandates saved at least 500 lives in Kansas, according to KU researchers

By Burdett Loomis
Special to Gannett Kansas

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence. — John Adams

Sometimes, the simplest story is the best one. With the COVID-19 epidemic, two fact-based stories stand out. First, getting vaccinated is the best thing you can do for yourself, your family and your community. The evidence is overwhelming, whether we’re talking about rates of infection, hospitalization, or death.

With almost 2 billion doses administered around the world, vaccination stands as a historic, unqualified success,

In Kansas, despite great variation among counties in vaccination levels, we have every reason to think that those counties with the highest rates will experience fewer new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

But thanks to the research done by KU scholars Donna Ginther and Carlos Zambrana, we do have solid evidence that another tactic — wearing masks — makes a big difference on containing spread, seriousness and deadliness of COVID-19. That’s the second major COVID-19 story, a straightforward social science narrative of how well-informed policies can produce positive results.

When Gov. Laura Kelly announced a mask mandate, taking effect in July 2020, just 15 (mostly large) counties complied. Conversely, 68 counties never adopted a mask requirement at all. Such a stark division established ideal conditions for a natural experiment. That is, we can compare how counties with a mask mandate fared during the pandemic as opposed to those who never imposed such a policy.

Veteran researchers Ginther and Zambrana are not epidemiologists. Ginther is a distinguished professor of economics and the head of KU’s multidisciplinary Institute for Policy and Social Research. But their work is straightforward analysis of easy-to-understand data, with a single, clear policy difference.

Moreover, the mask/no-mask dichotomy almost certainly underestimates the impact of mask-wearing, in that it tracks overall county policy, not the actual wearing of masks.

Paraphrasing their findings, when the mask mandate took effect, COVID-19 rates were three times higher in mask counties; in less than four months this trend reversed, with cases twice as high in no mask counties. Similar reversals occurred for both hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19. In sum, the simple mandating of mask-wearing significantly affected COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

By the July 3 start of Gov. Kelly’s mask mandate, the medical/scientific consensus was clear that this policy would slow the spread of COVID-19. But many politicians, in and out of Kansas, battled the mandate and politicized the policy.

They were wrong. Gov. Kelly and her advisers were right. Mask mandates saved at least 500 lives in Kansas. Following the known facts proved the better policy.

OK, you might say, in this limited study, good policy proved a better choice. But so what? Well, here’s what, on two major issues.

First, Medicaid expansion. Again, we have a natural experiment between states that did and didn’t expand. As of 2018, the expansion states experienced at least 19,000 fewer premature deaths than they would have without expansion, and medical debt dropped almost $1,500 per person once Medicaid expanded.

Second, climate change. Thousands of studies form a consensus on the immense fiscal and health benefits of aggressively combatting climate change. It’s difficult for a single state to do much, but as a society the facts demand that we act.

Per John Adams, “Facts are stubborn things.”