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In early March, Fauci said “there's no reason to be walking around with a mask.”
In the same interview, he said people could wear masks if they liked, but they wouldn’t get perfect protection, and it would further pinch what at the time was a short supply of masks for doctors and nurses.
After researchers discovered that asymptomatic people were spreading the virus, the public health community shifted to recommending that everyone wear a mask.
At 9:33 on the morning of Dec. 27, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted a verse from the Bible that urged people to rise above the faults they see in others.
"Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience," Rubio wrote. "Forgiving one another if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do."
By 10:45 a.m., Rubio struck a different tone.
"Dr. Fauci lied about masks in March," Rubio tweeted. "Dr. Fauci has been distorting the level of vaccination needed for herd immunity."
Lying involves the intent to deceive, and the claim that Anthony Fauci, head of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health, lied about masks is familiar ground for fact-checkers. It doesn’t hold up.
We have looked at what Fauci has said at different points during the pandemic, and his guidance has changed. The question is: Why?
Top government agencies such as the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shifted their policies on masks based on new findings about the novel coronavirus. It wasn’t until April 3 that the CDC urged everyone to wear one.
Before then, the message on masks was primarily about preserving a limited supply for health care workers, who were at especially high risk of exposure.
Rubio’s tweet specifically referred to what Fauci said in March. That month, Fauci gave two high-profile interviews. In the first one, which occurred days before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Fauci pushed back against the idea of everyone in the U.S. needing to wear masks.
It is worth reading Fauci’s exact words from his March 8 interview on CBS's "60 Minutes.":
FAUCI: The masks are important for someone who's infected to prevent them from infecting someone else. Now, when you see people and look at the films in China and South Korea, whatever, and everybody's wearing a mask. Right now in the United States, people should not be walking around with masks.
HOST: You're sure of this, because people are listening really closely to this.
FAUCI: Right. Now people should not be walk— there's no reason to be walking around with a mask. When you're in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better and it might even block a droplet, but it's not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is.
And often there are unintended consequences. People keep fiddling with the mask and they keep touching their face.
HOST: And you can get some schmutz sort of staying inside there.
FAUCI: Of course, but when you think "masks," you should think of health care providers needing them and people who are ill. The people — when you look at the films of countries, and you see 85% of the people wearing masks, that's fine. That's fine. I'm not against it. If you want to do it, that's fine.
HOST: But it can lead to a shortage.
FAUCI: Exactly, that’s the point. It could lead to a shortage of masks for the people who really need it.
Fauci’s critics have focused on his words "there's no reason to be walking around with a mask." But in the same interview, he also said that it was "fine" to wear a mask, although it wouldn’t offer perfect protection. And he said the main point was to preserve masks for those who were already ill and people providing care.
On March 27, Fauci spoke to a San Francisco NBC affiliate. He said given the shortage of masks, the general public ranked last behind doctors and nurses, and people who are infected.
"When we say you don't need to wear a mask, what we're really saying is make sure you prioritize it first for the people who need the mask," Fauci said. "In a perfect world, if you had all the masks you wanted, then you could get some degree of protection, but make sure you prioritize it well."
March was a pivotal month for understanding the disease. On March 1, the country had seen eight deaths. On March 31, the figure stood at more than 4,300.
When public officials talked about masks, they were talking about high-quality, hospital grade masks. In February and March, when the spread of the virus was still limited in the U.S., the mask shortage was a top concern.
On March 2, the FDA and CDC were saying "There is no added health benefit to the general American public to wear a respiratory protective device, such as an N95 respirator. The immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low."
On an emergency basis, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration relaxed the rules on the sort of masks hospitals could use, citing tight supplies of the high-grade masks.
The shortage was nationwide, and became more acute as the virus spread. On March 23, a bipartisan group of physician lawmakers in Utah called on businesses to donate N95 masks for use by health workers.
On March 29, President Donald Trump and the coronavirus task force briefed the press on steps underway to increase the supply of masks to doctors, nurses and all care providers.
By this time, COVID-19s had spread widely across the country, and public-health officials were rethinking their guidance as they learned more about the transmission of the virus by asymptomatic carriers.
On April 3, Trump announced, "From recent studies, we know that the transmission from individuals without symptoms is playing a more significant role in the spread of the virus than previously understood.
"In light of these studies, the CDC is advising the use of non-medical cloth face covering as an additional voluntary public health measure," Trump said. "I want to emphasize that the CDC is not recommending the use of medical-grade or surgical-grade masks, and we want that to be used for our great medical people that are working so hard."
We reached out to Rubio’s office and did not get a formal response, but his deputy chief of staff posted a non-responsive tweet.
Rubio said that Fauci lied about masks in March. This is incorrect in several ways.
Fauci did say, "there is no reason to be walking around with a mask," but to call that lying takes Fauci’s words out of context. The country faced a shortage of high-quality masks, and Fauci also said in his interviews that masks should be preserved for sick people and health care workers.
In addition, researchers did not know at the time that people without symptoms were spreading the virus. Once that was understood, wearing masks — even simple cloth masks — took on new importance for preventing community transmission.
Lying means there was an intent to deceive. Fauci’s words in March about masks mirrored the widely held belief across government agencies at that time about the nature of the novel coronavirus and the best ways to control it.
We rate this claim False.
Marco Rubio, tweet, Dec. 27, 2020
CBS News, "60 Minutes" interview with Anthony Fauci, March 8, 2020
White House, Coronavirus task force press briefing, March 29, 2020
U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA and CDC take action to increase access to respirators, including N95s, for health care personnel, March 2, 2020
Utah House of Representatives, Utah Physician Legislators Urge Businesses to Donate Personal Protective Equipment, March 23, 2020
PolitiFact, In Context: As Trump criticizes, a look back at Fauci’s early coronavirus statements, July 14, 2020
PolitiFact, Video shows outdated face mask guidance from Dr. Anthony Fauci, July 8, 2020
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