This post first appeared at BillMoyers.com on June 10, 2020.
Medical professionals agree unanimously that wearing a mask in public prevents the spread of COVID-19. In violation of the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control guidelines, Trump refuses to wear one.
Trump says that it’s because he is tested for COVID-19 regularly and so are those around him. That doesn’t explain why he mocks former Vice President Joe Biden for wearing one. Even apart from the FDA’s warning that the tests may return false negative results, ordinary Americans don’t have the luxury of weekly tests with immediate results. And now Trump has stoked fires of protest that, according to his former FDA commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, have lit new “chains of transmission.”
Trump’s New Front in the Culture Wars: An Attack on Public Health
Apr. 3: At a press briefing, Trump announces new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending a face covering to protect against COVID-19. Trump says he doesn’t plan to wear one.
From Apr. 7 to Apr. 14: According to a Gallup poll, Americans’ use of facemasks outside the home surged from 38 percent to 62 percent. But the partisan divide is clear: 75 percent of Democrats say they have worn a mask outside the home in the past seven days, compared to only 48 percent of Republicans.
Apr. 21: De Kai, who is a computer scientist with joint appointments at the UC Berkeley International Computer Science Institute and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, publishes a study, “Universal Masking is Urgent in the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Using data based on countries’ masking practices, his model shows that when 80 percent of a population wears a mask, significant reductions in COVID-19 infections result. Discussing the implications for reopening the economy, he and his co-authors observe:
“Without masking, but even with continued social distancing in place once the lockdown is lifted, the infection rate will increase and almost half of the population will become affected.…Without masking, lifting lockdown after nine weeks while keeping social distancing measures will risk a major second wave of the epidemic in 4-5 months’ time.“
Apr. 28: Vice President Mike Pence tours the Mayo Clinic, which has a policy requiring everyone to wear a mask. Pence refuses, saying, “As vice president of the United States, I’m tested for the coronavirus on a regular basis, and everyone who is around me is tested for the coronavirus.” The Mayo Clinic tweets and then deletes a message that, prior to Pence’s arrival, it had informed his office of the policy.
Apr. 30: Appearing on Fox & Friends, Pence’s wife says that he did not know about the Mayo Clinic’s mandatory mask policy.
May 3: At a Fox News town hall, Pence apologizes for not wearing a mask at the Mayo Clinic.
May 5: Trump refuses to wear a mask while touring a Honeywell mask-making facility in Arizona. In solidarity, a dozen or so supporters — also not wearing masks — gather outside the plant to cheer him on. As an Arizona Republic reporter approaches members of the crowd to interview them, they yell that by wearing masks, she and the other journalists are trying to incite fear, panic and paranoia. A member of the group tells the reporter, “It’s submission. It’s muzzling yourself. It looks weak, especially for men.”
May 7: One of Trump’s personal White House valets tests positive for COVID-19.
May 8: Pence’s spokesperson (Trump adviser Stephen Miller’s wife) tests positive for COVID-19.
Also on May 8: Japan has only seven COVID-19 deaths per million of population while the US has more than 300 deaths per million. In an interview with Vanity Fair, De Kai says that masking is one reason Japan has controlled the virus. Discussing his findings, he says the goal is “for 80 or 90% of the population to be wearing masks…If you get down to 30 or 40 percent, you get almost no [beneficial] effect at all.”
May 20-21: Michigan’s attorney general asks Trump to wear a mask during his upcoming visit to a Ford plant that has been retooled to make ventilators in response to the pandemic. “It is not just the policy of Ford, by virtue of the Governor’s Executive Orders. It is currently the law of this State,” she says. The next day, Trump refuses to wear a mask in public. “Not necessary. I’ve been tested,” he says. “I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.”
May 25: Trump shares a tweet from Fox News’ Brit Hume that includes Biden wearing a mask at a Memorial Day commemoration and this caption: “This might help explain why Trump doesn’t like to wear a mask in public. Biden today.”
May 26: During a Rose Garden press conference at the White House, Trump accuses a reporter of wearing a mask to be “politically correct.” “Can you take it off, because I cannot hear you?” Trump says disingenuously.
May 27: Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, implores Americans to wear a mask, just as he does. “I want to protect myself and protect others, and also because I want to make it be a symbol for people to see that that’s the kind of thing you should be doing,” he says. Dr. Fauci calls face masks a valuable safeguard, even though it’s not 100 percent effective. And, he adds, it shows “respect for another person.”
May 28: Trump shares a tweet arguing that the mandated use of face masks to control the spread of the COVID-19 represents a “culture of silence, slavery, and social death.” The accompanying article in The Federalist claims that mandating face masks is “anti-American,” signals “indefinite government expansion,” and is “a critical predicate conditioning us to accept abuses of our liberty.” Retweeting the message with the article, Trump adds, “So many different viewpoints!”
June 1: The medical journal Lancet publishes a study showing that using a face maskreduces the risk of human COVID-19 transmission from 17.4 percent to 3.1 percent.
More Bad Advice from Dr. Trump
After Trump touted hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure, an otherwise healthy Arizona man and his wife took it in a fish tank cleaning product and the husband died. Since then, numerous hospital studies have demonstrated repeatedly that the drug has no medical value, and the FDA has warned that it can produce fatal side effects. But Trump doubled-down and announced that he was taking the drug to prevent COVID-19. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on June 3 confirmed that it is not an effective preventative.
Then Trump suggested that “injection inside” a human body with a disinfectant might knock out COVID-19 “in a minute.” Calls to poison control centers spiked and the manufacturers of Clorox and Lysol issued urgent pleas: Don’t ingest or inject their products.
And now comes: Maskgate. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking poll found, “Democrats are almost twice as likely as Republicans (70% v. 37%) to say they wear a mask ‘every time’ they leave their house [and might be in contact with other people]…The partisan difference in opinion and behavior regarding masks is largely driven by Republican men.”
For those Republican men who think wearing a mask in public threatens their liberty, undermines their masculinity, or subjects them to ridicule, the Trump campaign has a middle ground: “MAGA” facemasks.
Try them. You’ll save lives.
But remember the real message of Trump’s refusal to wear a mask: He doesn’t care if Americans die in his culture wars. If rearranging reporters’ chairs at his June 5 news conference is an indication of things to come, Trump’s next public health target is social distancing:
Read all installments of Steven Harper’s Pandemic Timeline.