- Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s foremost infectious diseases expert, has addressed the about-face from health officials who said early on that the public shouldn’t bother wearing face masks, as they couldn’t guarantee to save you from the coronavirus.
- Now, of course, face masks are one piece of a multi-part strategy to limit transmission of the virus, along with social distancing measures.
- Fauci said that’s because, early on, officials didn’t want the public buying up all the masks that frontline health care workers needed.
On February 29, US Surgeon General Jerome Adams sent out the following tweet from his official Twitter account: “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”
That tweet is still live and still searchable on the social network, which means it still presents anyone who finds it with a contradictory and dangerous piece of advice compared to the best practices we’re all being urged to follow today. You know, the advice like how we’re supposed to socially distance ourselves from other people when we’re in public — and, especially, to wear face masks. In fact, a study commissioned by the World Health Organization found that face masks of any kind can effectively reduce coronavirus transmission. Which begs the question: Why were health officials like Adams saying the opposite at the start of the coronavirus pandemic? Did they realize what they were telling us was wrong?
Not according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who serves as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and who’s also been the public face of the government’s coronavirus response. According to Fauci, who recently sat down for a conversation with the financial news website The Street, the original advice was meant to preserve as much personal protective equipment, or PPE, as possible for frontline health care workers.
“The public health community, and many people were saying this, (was) concerned that it was at a time when personal protective equipment, including the N-95 masks and the surgical masks, were in very short supply,” Fauci told the site. The original advice regarding face masks was because officials didn’t want those workers “to be without the equipment that they needed.
“Now we have masks, and we know that you don’t need an N95 if you’re an ordinary person in the street. We also know that simple cloth coverings that many people have can work as well as a mask in many cases.”
Of course, the problem with such a dramatic about-face like this is the possibility that it provides fodder for conspiracy theorists as well as people who refuse to believe the COVID-19 pandemic is as serious as it is. See, they might point out, the government is wrong. They don’t know what they’re talking about. They said masks at one time were useless, so who’s to say the current warnings and statistics are true now?
Fauci was asked whether the government doing a 180 on face masks could spur this kind of thinking, and he acknowledged that it’s a reasonable question. But circumstances changed, he stressed — that’s why the guidance changed. He adds that he “unequivocally” supports wearing a face mask, even though they’re not 100% effective. What he means by that is the following — when you stop and think about it, let’s say you’re wearing one of those blue and white face masks you see surgeons wear in the operating room. You can still breathe while wearing it, right? You’re breathing air, albeit not as much as you could if you weren’t wearing a mask at all, but the fact that air can still get to you means that, guess what, contaminated air could also get to you.
That’s why Fauci also stresses that physical separation and social distancing remain “the best way to get a virus not to get to you.” But the mask absolutely helps, too.