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How wearing a face mask became politically fraught

Editor's Note: This segment contains footage from an interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci on The Street.com. View the original report here.

As several states experience surges in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, the debate over wearing face masks is creating a sharp divide. Nearly everyone in the public health community says masks worn in crowded places can help slow coronavirus spread -- but for some Americans, they are perceived as an affront. William Brangham reports and talks to Dr. Ranit Mishori of Georgetown University.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    With more and more states experiencing spikes in coronavirus cases and COVID-19 hospitalizations, the debate over wearing face masks is creating a sharp divide among some Americans.

    In a moment, William Brangham will talk with a doctor about the evidence surrounding masks, but, first, he begins with this report.

  • William Brangham:

    Even though nearly everyone in the public health community says wearing a mask in crowded places can help slow the spread of this pandemic, for some, masks are an affront.

  • Aubrey Huff:

    I understand the coronavirus is real.

  • William Brangham:

    Former Major League Baseball player Aubrey Huff summed up this view:

  • Aubrey Huff:

    Hell, I would rather die from coronavirus than to live the rest of my life in fear and wearing a damn mask.

  • William Brangham:

    Every week, social media lights up with videos of people resisting mask requirements.

  • Man:

    I work for Costco, and I'm asking this member to wear a mask, because that is our company policy. So, either wear the mask…

  • Man:

    And I'm not doing it because I woke up in a free country.

  • William Brangham:

    On the flip side, there are numerous stories of people engaging in mask shaming, like here, where shoppers in a grocery store hound a woman for not wearing one.

    This fight is also spilling into government.

  • Man:

    Wearing masks decreases the shed of this virus.

  • William Brangham:

    In Montgomery, Alabama, after a parade of doctors and nurses testified about the surge of COVID hospitalizations and the need for masks, the City Council on Tuesday voted down a face mask requirement.

  • Brantley Lyons:

    I think this is an overreach of the government. I think to make somebody do something or require somebody to wear something is overreach.

  • William Brangham:

    But the next day, Montgomery's mayor passed an executive order requiring them.

    Some governors, like California's Gavin Newsom, require everyone wear masks in public places. But Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, has banned cities and counties from fining residents who refuse to wear them.

  • Gov. Greg Abbott:

    All of us have a collective responsibility to educate the public that wearing a mask is the best thing to do. Putting people in jail, however, is the wrong approach.

  • William Brangham:

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization both now recommend people wear cloth masks as a proven prevention strategy.

    But that wasn't always their recommendation, and that reversal has added to people's suspicion.

    Dr. Anthony Fauci recently tried to explain that change, saying officials were worried about early mask shortages for health care workers.

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    We wanted to make sure that the people, namely, the health care workers who were brave enough to put themselves in harm's way, we did not want them to be without the equipment that they needed.

  • William Brangham:

    President Trump this week suggested some people choose to wear masks not for protection, but to signal they don't like him.

    And with rare exception, and against the advice of his own officials, the president has repeatedly refused to wear a mask in public. Across the country, many of his supporters are following his lead.

    For more on the politics and the science of mask wearing, I'm joined now by Dr. Ranit Mishori. She is a professor of family medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine, and she is also the senior medical adviser for Physicians for Human Rights.

    Dr. Mishori, very nice to see you again. Thank you for being here.

    Before we get to the politics issue, could you just remind us about the science, about the efficacy of masks?

  • Dr. Ranit Mishori:

    Yes, well, it's almost — it seems like almost every day we're getting a new study that shows that face masks are actually pretty efficacious in trying to curb the transmission of the coronavirus.

    From studies in labs, to modeling studies, to actual studies in communities, we have seen evidence that wearing a mask can be extremely efficacious in lowering the transmission rate and getting people not to be infected with the virus.

    So, we're seeing really impressive numbers. We're seeing one study from "Health Affairs," which was a modeling study, but it showed that wearing a mask, the more states that allow that or mandate that, that we can avert the transmission to between 230,000 and 450,000 people. That's a lot of people for an action that is so easy, so simple, and only mildly inconvenient.

  • William Brangham:

    Mildly inconvenient is right.

    As I mentioned in that tape piece, there was a lot of mixed messaging that came out at first at the beginning of the pandemic, where public health officials said, there's no need for American citizens to wear masks, and then, all of a sudden, that switched.

    You saw Dr. Fauci's response to that. What do you make of that mixed messaging, and the confusion it might have sowed?

  • Dr. Ranit Mishori:

    Yes, there's no question that there was confusion.

    And, remember, in the old days back then, it seems like years ago, those were the same messages that I gave to my own patients. But the reality is, back then, we didn't have as many studies specifically looking at coronavirus. We had studies based on wearing masks for flu prevention.

    So, one thing is, the science is evolving when it comes to the coronavirus, on everything, including mask wearing, but also clinical management is changing basically on a daily basis. So that's one reason.

    But the other one, as he was talking about, is that, at the time, there was a huge shortage in personal protective equipment for physicians. And there was a concern that, if everybody ran out to get the N95 or even the surgical masks, then nothing would be left for physicians and nurses and other health professionals.

    And that would mean that those people who come in the closest contact with very, very sick people wouldn't be protected. But now the shortages are not as bad, and we have a lot more research that shows that this is very effective.

  • William Brangham:

    So, what do you make of these protests? If the evidence is so clear — and, as you say, it's really not that much of an inconvenience — how do you explain this growing sort of revolt against wearing masks among some parts of the population?

  • Dr. Ranit Mishori:

    As a doctor, it's really, really hard to accept it and to look at it and think that it's appropriate or acceptable.

    It has become very socially and politically contentious, of course. I think some people think that the coronavirus pandemic itself is a hoax. And if that is a hoax, and it's not really happening, then why would I need a mask?

    Other people see it through a political lens. They think of people who wear a mask as somehow sending anti-Trump messages. But, again, as a public health person, as a doctor, I think we need to see it through the lens of public health, through the lens of helping somebody else in your community be protected.

  • William Brangham:

    I want to turn to a slightly different issue, and that is that, in some states that have been reopening recently in the last weeks or month, we have seen a spike in new infection rates and those very troubling charts from each state of new cases going up.

    The president and some of his administration have argued that we shouldn't be alarmed at those spike in cases, and that's simply a reflection that we're doing more testing, and so we're finding more cases.

    That, in part, may be true, but that's really not the whole story, right?

  • Dr. Ranit Mishori:


    I mean, yes, when we test more, we will find more. But what's really happening is, beyond the increased number of testing, is that we're seeing hospitals being overwhelmed, ICUs being filled to capacity, people going into the hospitals.

    So a lot of it is about the capacity of hospitals and the fact that more people are showing up and are sick enough to require hospitalization, which, to me, is a sign that it's not just about testing. It's about more people actually getting very sick.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Ranit Mishori of Georgetown University Medical School, thank you so much for being here again.

  • Dr. Ranit Mishori:

    Thank you so much for having me. Appreciate that.

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