By DARLENE SUPERVILLE and AAMER MADHANI, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — White House officials insist that President Donald Trump strongly supports face masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus and always has. But the president’s own words and actions tell a very different — and sometimes puzzling — story.
That’s created a gulf between Trump and public health officials that keeps widening six months after the virus took root in the U.S., with the president undercutting medical experts who say consistent face covering is one of the best tools to fight the pandemic.
Trump initially dismissed mask wearing for himself, then allowed himself to be seen wearing one while visiting a military hospital. He has called it “patriotic” to wear a mask but seldom passes up an opportunity to mock Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden for his routine mask wearing.
On Wednesday, after the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Congress that his mask might even be a better guarantee than a vaccine against the virus, Trump publicly undercut Dr. Robert Redfield.
“As far as the mask is concerned, he made a mistake,” said Trump.
Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said he’s “bewildered” by Trump’s ambiguity about masks. He said widespread use would also help restore economic vitality faster, a prime Trump goal.
“I don’t think that there’s any controversy about masks anywhere in the world,” Inglesby said. “Why we continue to have this debate about it is a mystery.”
Lawrence Gostin, a public health expert at Georgetown University’s law school, said Trump’s vacillation between portraying masks as an infringement on personal rights and touting them as crucial to stemming the virus has left Americans “absolutely dazed and confused.”
“One could forgive the American public for not trusting anyone,” Gostin said.
But Gostin also faulted Redfield for asserting that masks are more important than an eventual vaccine, at least until one is approved. Suggesting that being vaccinated is less important as long as people are wearing masks has further clouded the public message, Gostin said.
Public health experts largely agree that COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, will be brought under control through a combination of social distancing, mask wearing and a vaccine.
“One of those three is not enough, you need all three,” Gostin said. “It’s such a simple message. It’s just befuddling that the White House doesn’t consistently state that message.”
Trump has very seldom worn a mask for the world to see, though he is regularly tested for COVID-19 and says he does wear one when he can’t practice social distancing. At one point, he suggested that the reason some people wear masks is to make a political statement against him.
The CDC recommended in April that people wear cloth face coverings in public when it’s difficult to be socially distant. But Trump immediately undercut the guidance, declaring he wouldn’t follow it and suggesting it would be unseemly to