Anthony Fauci is once again spouting bad COVID advice
Controversial ex-COVID czar Anthony Fauci reemerged this week to urge that, because of rising infection rates, we consider a return to comprehensive masking protocols. That’s bad health-care policy, because it doesn’t follow the science. No wonder nobody’s listening to Dr. Fauci.
Let’s face it: public-health messaging and open, honest debate haven’t been the Good Doctor’s strong suits. He’s the wrong man, at the wrong time, with the wrong advice. But the big problem is a misunderstanding of what’s actually going on.
Following large-scale vaccination efforts and the introduction of the various Omicron variants, states and municipalities with more robust masking regulations have not fared better than those with more targeted strategies for reducing the prevalence of serious disease. Even with today’s significantly more infectious COVID-19 strains, the number of serious viral manifestations remain very low — and, in the majority, most of them impact unvaccinated and high-risk individuals.
So whether or not masking was good at preventing the spread of COVID before vaccines became available, it certainly is not so today. And it’s doubly foolish to use infection rates to trigger a return to widespread masking. Prior to mass vaccination, such rates were an excellent predictor of both hospitalization and death rates; today, they’re still an important data point — but they’re no longer a key indicator of public-health danger.
That’s because today’s COVID-19 symptoms are milder and the duration is shorter.
We have to start measuring and prioritizing new data. We’re not in a public-health emergency anymore. Why is that so hard to say?
Let’s not repeat the failures of the past. One of the key lessons from COVID-19 is that the public-health community must deal with both science and real-world behavior. America simply isn’t going to return to widespread masking protocols for a non-lethal virus. And there’s no need for it to do so. That’s reality.
With hospitalization and death rates remaining far, far below infection rates, we should instead keep up the pandemic-to-endemic momentum. We should ramp up pro-vaccination messaging (for both adults and children) as our primary effort to reduce serious impacts on a diminishing minority of the population even further and continue to actively support the development of better, more targeted vaccines, tests and therapeutics.
Vaccination is a proven, winning strategy. President Joe Biden’s election supposedly heralded a “science is back” philosophy. So when it comes to the facts, we can’t ignore science when it’s inconvenient.
Which brings us back to Dr. Fauci. We must keep our eye on the prize — not getting Americans to put their masks back on but getting unvaccinated Americans to roll up their sleeves. The key question: Is Tony Fauci an asset or a liability in this effort, considering who these unvaccinated Americans are and how they feel about him and his ideas on the re-masking of America? It doesn’t take complicated Nate Silver algorithms to answer that one.
While going head-to-head with Republican senators on MSNBC might have the network’s viewers hollering “Go Tony!”, such victories are Pyrrhic. There’s no room for a partisan echo chamber when it comes to scientific matters. We do not need to further agitate fellow Americans already (unnecessarily) suffering from mask PTSD.
Tony Fauci is damaged goods. In the immortal words of Marshall McLuhan, “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” Due to no fault of his own (well, maybe just a little), Dr. Fauci has become a political distraction we cannot afford. Or, in the words of Washington Irving, which are particularly appropriate in the case of Dr. Fauci: “Villainy wears many masks; none so dangerous as the mask of virtue.”
We should target those citizens most at risk with solid information on infection-mitigation strategies (including wearing masks more regularly). But returning to a one-size-fits-all recommendation for indoor masking is bad science. It’s a fool’s errand as well.
Peter J. Pitts, a former associate FDA commissioner and member of the United States Senior Executive Service, is president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and a visiting professor at the University of Paris Medical School.