MADISON (WKOW) -- During a virtual town hall Monday, Senator Ron Johnson questioned the effectiveness of masks in preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
It was the second time in less than a week Johnson challenged widely-accepted public health guidance around the importance of masks and vaccines in minimizing the risk of infections and the creation of new variant strains.
Johnson was responding to a question from a constituent about his message around masking when he questioned their value.
"As more evidence comes in, it's becoming harder and harder to support that masks actually work," Johnson said. "If they would've worked, we probably wouldn't have had as many infections, as many deaths as we did."
Johnson went on to say, despite his apparent reservations about their usefulness, he still wears masks in public settings.
"Be that as it may, I just was on a flight; I wore a mask the entire time," Johnson said. "So I'm not opposed to masks but I think we should literally take a look at that."
The state's senior senator added he especially questioned why children should have to wear them, citing guidance from the World Health Organization that children five-years-old and younger should not be required to wear face coverings.
Johnson's remarks came less than a week after he questioned why anyone who's been vaccinated should care about whether other people choose to get the vaccine.
A spokesman for Johnson's office did not respond to requests for additional comment or clarification Tuesday.
UW-Madison epidemiologist Ajay Sethi said anyone who questions whether masks help prevent the spread of airborne viruses should look no further than an operating room.
"Masks do work at reducing the transmission when you compare that to wearing no masks at all," Sethi said. "It's exactly why our healthcare providers wear masks."
Sethi added the value from vaccinated people wearing masks in large gatherings is in preventing new variant strains from forming.
Sethi said while the vaccine is extremely effective in preventing severe COVID-19 infections, the virus can still spread in "breakthrough cases," and until communities reach herd immunity, that spread brings the risk of new strains that are more resistant to the virus.
"As long as we're creating situations where the virus is allowed to move from one person to the other, vaccinated or not, you're giving that virus a chance to evolve," Sethi said. "And those new variants we keep detecting become potentially more infectious."