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Monday, August 17, 2020

Gaiters - Are they bad or did the news jump the gun (again).

Yes, I suppose that this is another COVID-19 post but I haven't written about COVID since April and March. Also - one could argue that this post isn't really about COVID. It's really about press coverage of emerging research (maybe any research) and COVID just happens to be the context.

You've probably seen the headlines or heard the news that the neck gaiters people have been wearing as face masks might not be working. Six days ago the headline was pretty scary: "Wearing a neck gaiter may be worse than no mask at all, researchers find".

OK, they did say "may" which could imply some uncertainty, but the coverage that I saw was pretty negative on gaiters. In fact, my employer has banned them based on these reports.

Four days ago, the headline was a little less scary: "Some neck gaiters may be worse than not wearing a mask at all, study shows". Now it says both "may" and "some".

Three days ago, the headline shifted again: "The results of this viral mask study found gaiters weren't effective - but it that true?" That's a very different headline and the article includes a quote from one of the researchers (Brian Labus):

“People have really gone overboard with their interpretation of this study. The goal of the study was not actually to evaluate masks” 

What??? They weren't even trying to evaluate masks? You wouldn't know it from the headlines but they were trying to develop a low-cost method that could be used to evaluate masks. 

In fairness, I should point out that all three articles include a link to the actual research report. Unfortunately, when major news outlets report on research, very few readers click through to the actual research (did you click my link?). Instead, people count on the news story to accurately summarize the research. In this case, the news blew it and focused on a peripheral issue.

In my experience, it's not unusual for news reports about research to do a poor job of representing the research. Sometimes it's intentional but often it's just sloppy reporting.

That said, there was a peripheral finding with a small sample size for a particular gaiter. That's far from conclusive but it should be enough to raise concerns and encourage further research on gaiters. I hope that research happens soon and gets better reporting.

Oh, about that sample size I mentioned in the previous paragraph? I could comment on it, but I won't. You should click through to the actual research study and see for yourself. 

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