Fauci defends mixed-messaging on masks in early days of pandemic

Dr. Anthony Fauci on Sunday once again defended the federal government’s mixed-messaging on masks during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert, in an interview on MSNBC, was asked about a March 8, 2020 clip in which he said that “there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.”

Fauci had made the comments on CBS’ “60 Minutes” during the early stages of the outbreak in the US. The video has resurfaced several times since.

Less than a month later, on April 3, 2020, the CDC updated its guidance on the use of face coverings, saying they should be worn “in public settings when around people outside their household, especially when social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”

On Sunday, MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan asked Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whether it was a mistake not to recommend masks from the get-go.

Fauci went on to give a detailed explanation, reiterating that, at the time, he and others were being told in White House COVID-19 task force meetings that there was a shortage of masks.

“If we went around recommending masks, the healthcare providers who were putting themselves in harm’s way every single day would not have enough,” Fauci said he was told.

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Also, he said, there was “no evidence at the time that masks outside the setting of the hospital worked.”

Another factor was that health experts did not yet know that at least 50 percent of the infections were being spread by people who had no symptoms.

“That’s the real reason why at that time, we, I and others, made that statement,” Fauci said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci at a a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on March 18, 2021.
Dr. Anthony Fauci at a a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on March 18, 2021.
Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times via AP, Pool

Within one or two months, it became clear that there was no shortage of masks, Fauci said. Researchers also learned more about the virus as the outbreak progressed, including that masks and even cloth face-coverings worked to stem the spread.

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Experts “started to see substantial data that masks outside the setting of the hospital work to prevent infection and you from infecting someone else,” Fauci said.

And, “we found out to our horror that 50 percent or more of the infections were transmitted through people who didn’t know they were infected,” he continued.

Bristling at the suggestion that he flip-flopped on the issue, Fauci said that would only have been the case had the situation remained the same.

“If something changes and the data changes and you change with the data, you’re not flip-flopping,” he said.

Fauci has defended the decision before, including to ABC News in September, in the Washington Post in July and in an InStyle magazine interview with CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell, also in July.

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