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Fauci’s Mask Flip-Flop, Explained (by Economics)

What might prompt Dr. Fauci to change his medical opinion on masks? The answer can be found in basic economics.

Last summer in an interview with CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell, Dr. Anthony Fauci said he had no regrets over advising Americans against wearing masks in public spaces early in the pandemic, even though his recommendations changed months later.

“I don’t regret anything I said then because in the context of the time in which I said it, it was correct,” said Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease advisor. “We were told in our task force meetings that we have a serious problem with the lack of PPEs and masks for the health providers who are putting themselves in harm’s way every day to take care of sick people.”

Fauci was referring to comments he made on 60 Minutes in March 2020. During that interview, Fauci said “there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask,” noting they should be used only for sick people as source control.

“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,” said Fauci. “And, often, there are unintended consequences — people keep fiddling with the mask and they keep touching their face.”

Fauci’s about-face on masks was not without controversy, but it had some excuse given its context. A public health official lying to the public he is responsible for protecting (for whatever the reason) is no small matter. But one could also see Fauci’s explanation as a “noble lie” designed to make sure the people who needed masks most would get them.

Newly released emails, however, suggest that when Fauci said in March that there was no reason for healthy individuals to wear masks, it wasn’t to prevent a mask shortage—it was because he believed it.

This week the Washington Post and BuzzFeed News released hundreds of pages of Fauci’s emails, which were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The emails contain many revelations. Among them is an email reply Fauci sent to one Sylvia Burwell, presumably the same Sylvia Burwell who served under President Barack Obama as Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Burwell, who was slated to travel, had asked Dr. Fauci for his advice on the use of face masks. Fauci’s reply, dated February 5, 2020, is included in its entirety below.

“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. I do not recommend that you wear a mask, particularly since you are going to a very low risk location.”

The email is important because it shows Fauci was saying privately in February 2020 precisely what he was saying publicly in March 2020. The fact that Fauci was sharing this information privately with Burwell undermines his claim that his recommendation to not wear masks was motivated by fear of causing a mask-purchasing stampede.

In other words, there’s every reason to believe that Fauci was simply sharing his genuine medical opinion, which corresponded with the scientific consensus and the World Health Organization at the time, that masks (particularly cloth ones purchased at retail stores) are ineffective at keeping the virus out and may cause riskier behavior by giving wearers a false sense of protection.