Feds’ mixed mes­sages on masks sow con­fu­sion

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - NATION / WORLD - BY AAMER MADHANI As­so­ci­ated Press

For­give the Amer­i­can peo­ple if they’re in a fog about face masks. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment have done a num­ber on them.

First there was the don’tdo-it phase. Then the nice­but-not-for-me dis­so­nance. Fol­lowed by the local-rules­don’t-ap­ply ex­cep­tions. Topped off by Trump’s stated sus­pi­cion that some peo­ple wear masks just to troll him.

It has all added up to a murky mes­sage about one of the crit­i­cal tools in the fight against the coro­n­avirus pan­demic. And the politi­ciza­tion of the to-wear-ornot-to-wear de­bate is clear in re­cent pub­lic polling.

To be clear: The Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion rec­om­mends that peo­ple wear cloth face cov­er­ings in pub­lic set­tings where other so­cial dis­tanc­ing mea­sures are dif­fi­cult to main­tain. Some states and local com­mu­ni­ties re­quire them.

But the mes­sag­ing dis­con­nect from Wash­ing­ton was ev­i­dent as re­cently as Fri­day, when Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence de­fended Trump’s de­ci­sion to stage two big mask-scarce gath­er­ings in the past week in states with big surges in in­fec­tions and, in one case, local rules re­quir­ing masks.

“We just be­lieve that what’s most im­por­tant here is that peo­ple lis­ten to the lead­er­ship in their state and the lead­er­ship in their local com­mu­nity and ad­here to that guid­ance whether it has to do with fa­cial cov­er­ings or whether it has to do with the size of gath­er­ings,” Pence said.

Early on, the gov­ern­ment’s no-mask mes­sage was un­equiv­o­cal. As the first known COVID-19 in­fec­tions were iden­ti­fied on U.S. soil, top pub­lic health of­fi­cials in­sisted masks should be re­served for front-line work­ers.

Later, the CDC is­sued its rec­om­men­da­tion for cloth face cov­er­ings in pub­lic set­tings where other so­cial dis­tanc­ing mea­sures were dif­fi­cult to main­tain. But Trump im­me­di­ately un­der­cut that guid­ance by flatly stat­ing that he wouldn’t be fol­low­ing it.

He told The Wall Street Jour­nal this month that some peo­ple wear masks sim­ply to show that they dis­ap­prove of him.

Now, the mask de­bate is heat­ing up in the South and West, where in­fec­tions are surg­ing to lev­els the coun­try hasn’t seen since April, when the North­east and Mid­west were par­tic­u­larly hard-hit.

In Ari­zona, Florida, and Texas, with GOP gov­er­nors and huge spikes in in­fec­tions, there’s been a hes­i­tance to re­quire peo­ple to wear masks in pub­lic spa­ces.

But in Cal­i­for­nia, Ne­vada and North Carolina,- with Demo­cratic gov­er­nors and in­creas­ing in­fec­tion lev­els, rules re­quir­ing masks took ef­fect this past week.

The di­vide on masks is stark even within Repub­li­can-lean­ing Sun Belt states, where some big city Demo­cratic may­ors have im­posed their own mask rules.

Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing the mes­sag­ing is that as Trump ques­tions the ef­fec­tive­ness of masks and re­fuses to wear one in pub­lic, Sur­geon Gen­eral Jerome Adams has taken to Twit­ter to de­clare that “I show my pa­tri­o­tism by wear­ing a face cov­er­ing in pub­lic!“

That would be the same sur­geon gen­eral who tweeted on Feb. 29: “Se­ri­ously peo­ple- STOP BUY­ING MASKS! They are NOT ef­fec­tive in pre­vent­ing gen­eral pub­lic from catch­ing (hash)Coro­n­avirus, but if health­care providers can’t get them to care for sick pa­tients, it puts them and our com­mu­ni­ties at risk!”

The dither­ing over face masks has un­nerved pub­lic health ex­perts as stud­ies sug­gest that the cov­er­ings could have a dra­matic im­pact on lim­it­ing the virus’ death toll.

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