In a recent interview with The New York Times, former White House COVID-19 adviser Anthony Fauci conceded that face masks had, at best, a modest overall impact on coronavirus transmission during the pandemic. “From a broad public-health standpoint, at the population level, masks work at the margins—maybe 10 percent,” he said. “But for an individual who religiously wears a mask, a well-fitted KN95 or N95, it’s not at the margin. It really does work.”
This week CNN’s Erin Burnett asked Surgeon General Vivek Murthy about Fauci’s gloss, which she said might be perceived as “an extremely significant statement,” because “we were told it didn’t matter what kind of mask [we wore].” She also noted that children were required to wear masks in schools and day care centers, adding that “none of them wore them the right way.” The contrast between that frequently mandatory advice and what Fauci is saying now, Burnett suggested, is “upsetting to a lot of people.”
Murthy’s response illustrates the persistent difficulty that public health officials have in speaking honestly about this subject. He conceded that shifting government health advice “can be disconcerting” but said “sometimes guidance does evolve over time as you learn more.” He also allowed that the pandemic “has been incredibly hard for a lot of people, especially kids and parents.” And he mentioned “greater loneliness and isolation” as one consequence of the pandemic, saying the Biden administration is working on “a national strategy to address loneliness.”
The one thing Murthy did not address was the substance of Burnett’s question. Fauci’s current summary of the evidence, she noted, contradicts what public health officials told us during the pandemic. “Do you understand,” Burnett asked, why people might view that contradiction as “extremely significant” and “upsetting”? Murthy evidently does not understand that, even though it goes to the heart of the government’s credibility when it purports to tell us what science says about the effectiveness of disease control measures.
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