Dr. Anthony Fauci wrote in February 2020 that store-bought face masks would not be very effective at protecting against the COVID-19 pandemic and advised a traveler not to wear one.
The Washington Post and BuzzFeed News have obtained hundreds of pages of Fauci’s emails through the Freedom of Information Act, revealing more about the early days of the pandemic.
In one message, Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, replies to an email from Sylvia Burwell, believed to be the Sylvia Burwell who was health and human services secretary for three years under President Barack Obama. Burwell had asked for advice about wearing face masks while traveling. Fauci’s reply is dated February 5, 2020, and is available in a document cloud provided by Buzzfeed.
Fauci wrote: “Masks are really for infected people to prevent them from spreading infection to people who are not infected rather than protecting uninfected people from acquiring infection.
“The typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out virus, which is small enough to pass through material. It might, however, provide some slight benefit in keep out gross droplets if someone coughs or sneezes on you.”
He added: “I do not recommend that you wear a mask, particularly since you are going to a very low risk location.”
Fauci has previously been criticized for changing his position on masks. Early on in the pandemic, he advised against wearing face coverings, but that advice evolved over time.
On March 8, 2020, Fauci said “there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask,” according to Reuters—but this was before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance on masks on April 3.
The CDC recommended that people wear face coverings “in public settings when around people outside their household, especially when social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”
The changes were made as more information about COVID-19 became available during the pandemic. Fauci has since encouraged mask-wearing in line with the CDC advice. He told NBC News on January 25 that wearing two masks was “common sense.”
“So, if you have a physical covering with one layer, you put another layer on, it just makes common sense that it likely would be more effective,” he said. “That’s the reason why you see people either double masking or doing a version of an N95 [respirator].”
The CDC guidelines were recently updated to say that fully vaccinated people could go without masks in most indoor and outdoor situations, but Fauci has warned that this does not mean everyone can take off their masks yet.
“It is not a mandate to take your mask off,” Fauci told the Pod Save America podcast on May 18.
Newsweek has asked the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for comment.
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