WASHINGTON — In a congressional hearing Wednesday, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, held up the disposable surgical mask he had been wearing and declared that the simple covering may ultimately be better than a much-hoped-for vaccine.
“This face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine,” Redfield said, referring to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. That disease has now killed about 200,000 people in the United States.
Redfield went on to say that a vaccine could have an immunogenicity of 70 percent, meaning that it may not work in close to one-third of people to whom it is administered.
“If I don’t get an immune response, the vaccine’s not going to protect me. This face mask will.”
A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that “since masks can filter out some virus-containing droplets” but not all viral particles, a mask could act as a kind of exposure therapy, prepping the body to fight the coronavirus without actually sickening the subject.
“If this theory bears out, population-wide masking, with any type of mask that increases acceptability and adherence, might contribute to increasing the proportion of SARS-CoV-2 infections that are asymptomatic,” the article said. The reasoning behind this idea is that people wearing masks would receive a much smaller viral load than people without masks.
(SARS-CoV-2 is the internationally accepted name for the coronavirus, which emerged in China late last year.)
“The idea that mechanical barriers can be more effective than vaccines in stopping transmission isn’t crazy,” University of Chicago computational biologist Sarah Cobey explained to Yahoo News. “It’s basically how we controlled cholera and other enteric pathogens: We improved plumbing rather than developing an especially effective vaccine.”
It is not clear if Redfield was responding specifically to the New England Journal of Medicine study, but there is plenty of other evidence that masks prevent the coronavirus from spreading.
The comments bluntly contradicted what President Trump said during a televised town hall the evening before. “A lot of people think the masks are not good,” he said before going on to discuss how restaurant waiters “play” with their masks.
He also wondered why Joe Biden, the former vice president, has not instituted a mask mandate. As a private citizen, Biden does not have that power. As a current government official, Trump does.
Trump did correctly note that Redfield and other top scientists told people not to wear masks early in the pandemic. That was in part because some officials feared that a run on face coverings could deplete hospitals of personal protective equipment. In addition, the novel nature of the coronavirus meant that scientists had not yet fully grasped how relentlessly it spreads through the air.
That guidance has long been discarded, with many governors and local officials from both parties encouraging people to wear masks. Trump and his closest supporters are outliers in that regard, evidently seeing resistance to masks as a potent argument to rally conservatives.
Redfield has struggled to assert his independence from the White House, but the methodical, apolitical doctor often seems poorly suited for the bare-knuckle style of Washington under Trump. But at least on the matter of masks, he had no trouble making the case on Wednesday morning.
“These face masks are the most important public health tool we have,” Redfield said. The comments were widely and approvingly shared on social media almost as soon as they were made, suggesting that most Americans are exhausted by the face mask culture war.
In fact, the vast majority of people support mask wearing, at least in principle, regardless of political affiliation.
Redfield testified at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing along with Dr. Brett Giroir, an assistant health secretary, and Dr. Bob Kadlec, another high-ranking deputy in that department.
In his own remarks, Giroir said recent successes in driving down infection and fatality rates “could be fleeting or even reversed if we do not continue to follow the national plan and exercise personal responsibility, especially wearing masks and avoiding crowds.”
The White House did not respond to a Yahoo News request for comment. A national mask mandate from Trump is highly unlikely.
Absent a mask mandate or new lockdown-like restrictions, the nation will have to wait for a vaccine. That could be a long wait. In his testimony, Redfield said that even if such a vaccine is forthcoming in the next two or three months, its supply will be “very limited,” meaning that it will be many more months until ordinary Americans are able to receive inoculations.
Redfield predicted that that level of vaccination, and the accompanying resumption of ordinary life, will not occur until the end of 2021.
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