Fauci says it's time for the US to 'put aside these extraordinary excuses' and mandate masks

Hilary Brueck
·7 min read
fauci vaccine
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on June 30, 2020. Al Drago/AFP via Getty Images
  • The White House said "we are not going to control the pandemic."

  • But Dr. Anthony Fauci disagrees, and fresh scientific evidence is on his side that we already have the tools at our disposal to get the virus under control. 

  • Fauci told JAMA on Wednesday that universal mask wearing "really, really does" make a difference, backing up a recent article he and his colleagues wrote. 

  • Here are 5 key reasons why Fauci says it's time to "put aside these extraordinary excuses for not doing it."

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The White House is calling it quits on fighting the coronavirus. 

"We are not going to control the pandemic," President Trump's chief of staff, Mark Meadows, told CNN on Sunday

But America's top infectious disease expert is still in it to win it, and masks, he says, are crucial to our pandemic battle.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), says that masks are a "flagship" piece of "low-tech" coronavirus-fighting armor that we already have at hand. Problem is, masks are still not being universally used in the US — yet. 

"We can't have this very inconsistent wearing that you see, where you see some states that absolutely refuse to wear a mask," Fauci said on Wednesday during a conversation with Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) editor in chief Dr. Howard Bauchner.

"It almost becomes a political statement. We've got to get away from that." 

When pressed on whether the US might need to institute a mask mandate in order to "get masking to 90-95% of the population" Fauci was unequivocal.

"I think we do," he said. "If you don't want to shut down, at least do the fundamental, basic things — really the flagship of which is wearing a mask."

The talk backs up what Fauci and two of his colleagues from the NIAID, Dr. Andrea Lerner and Dr. Gregory Folkers, said on Monday in a JAMA viewpoint article

"If you put masking with keeping distances, and avoiding congregate settings and crowds, and trying to do things outdoors more than indoors, it makes a difference," Fauci said. "It really, really does."

Here are the five of biggest reasons why Fauci and his colleagues are consistently arguing that it's really important for everyone keep on donning their mask during this pandemic, especially as the US is dealing with its greatest surge of coronavirus infections yet.

1. Where masks are used, coronavirus infection rates tumble

There is a clear pattern that has been established at this point in the pandemic, based on studies conducted in hospitals and homes around the world: wherever masks are worn, coronavirus transmission rates tumble.

A study of 124 households in Beijing conducted early-on in the pandemic, which Fauci and his JAMA co-authors cited, found that Chinese families who wore masks at home before anyone in the house ever knew they were sick with the virus saw lower odds of secondary infections (face mask use was "79% effective in reducing transmission," the study said.) 

Likewise, in Massachussetts' largest hospital system, after all health care workers and patients started wearing masks, virus "positivity rate among health care workers declined from 14.65% to 11.46%, with a decline of 0.49% per day," Fauci's viewpoint said. 

Modeling studies back up this same idea on population-wide level, suggesting that putting on a face covering not only prevents more disease, it also saves lives. 

Mask mandates may have "averted more than 200,000 cases of COVID-19 [the disease caused by the coronavirus] by May 22, 2020," according to another study Fauci that and his co-authors cited. 

More recent modeling estimates suggest that if every American put on a mask now, 63,000 more US deaths could be saved by March.

2. Masks keep other people's germs closer to them than you

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Dr. Anthony Fauci watches as Vice President Mike Pence speaks after leading a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing on June 26, 2020. Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

Masks are the kind of armor you want everyone to wear. 

They keep infected people's germs closer to them, and as such are "a logical strategy to curb transmission," Fauci and his colleagues said.

Even when people aren't shouting, laughing, or singing (activities we know can spread the virus well) "masks can reduce respiratory virus shedding in exhaled breath," which means not only are other people less likely to get sick from being around infected individuals who are wearing masks, they may, possibly, also get a milder case of the coronavirus, if indeed they do become infected. 

3. It's important to keep your mask on, even when you're talking

Indoors, in stuffy, stagnant spaces without good ventilation, coronavirus particles can more easily linger in the air. 

That's why you should try to keep your mask on as much as possible when interacting with others outside your home.

"With the onset of colder weather in the northern hemisphere, activities will increasingly occur inside, resulting in often-unavoidable congregating," Fauci and his colleagues said. 

Knowing that such crowded, indoor spaces can be prone to a buildup of more virus in the air, "the commonly observed practice of individuals removing their mask when speaking is not advisable," Fauci said. 

4. Some people might never realize they have COVID-19, so everyone should wear a mask when in public

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Rob Carr/Staff/Getty Images

Another reason to wear a mask? Asymptomatic virus spread.

"Recent evidence suggests that up to 40% to 45% of people infected with [the coronavirus] may never be symptomatic, but still can transmit the virus," Fauci and his colleagues said. 

Because this means we can never, really, know exactly who has the virus and who doesn't, "universal mask wearing in the community for source control is recommended," they added. 

5. 'Testing alone,' without masks, does not work

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Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie reaches out his hand to guests in the Rose Garden on September 26, 2020. Christie announced he'd tested positive for the coronavirus the next weekend. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This strategy was tried, and failed, at the White House already.

"No test is perfect," Fauci and his colleagues said. 

Tests can produce false negative results (telling people they're sick when they're really not), and all tests "have a lower limit of detection," the doctors said, which means some cases of the coronavirus will never get picked up by a test. 

In addition, tests are but a snapshot in time, and they can't continuously measure whether we're getting sick at every moment of the day. A negative test one day then won't, necessarily, mean you'll test negative for the virus the next. Coronavirus tests need to be used in conjunction with other virus-fighting strategies, including social distance, and masks. 

"We have to sort of shake each other by the collar and say, 'take a look at what's going on. Look at the data. It speaks for itself,'" Fauci said.

"Let's put aside these extraordinary excuses for not doing it when we're dealing with a situation that's not trivial. You know, we have 225,000 deaths. The modeling tells us we're going to get a hundred or more thousand as we get into the winter. That is just something that's unacceptable."

Correction: A previous version of this story cited an inaccurate statistic about how many more lives could be saved by March 2021 if the US adopted universal mask wearing. The correct figure is 63,000 lives

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