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NIH director says wearing masks is not 'optional' to curb pandemic's spread

Top government health expert calls wearing masks a basic "public health action."
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WASHINGTON — Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, called the political divide over wearing masks to curb the spread of the coronavirus “bizarre” in an interview on "Meet the Press" Sunday, adding that he does not believe facial coverings are “optional for people who want to protect themselves and people around them."

Asked about President Donald Trump's statements about masks — the president told Fox News that he wants “people to have a certain freedom” and also that “masks cause problems too” and “I think masks are good” — Collins said that an alien coming down to Earth would be “astounded, puzzled, amazed” by the political divide over masks.

“It is bizarre that we have turned mask-wearing into something political,” he said. “How could it be that something as basic as a public health action that we have very strong evidence can help seems to attach to people’s political party? For starters, can we just walk away from that?”

Twenty-eight states, and the District of Columbia, now require masks outside the home to slow the virus’ spread.

Gov. Jared Polis, D-Colo., told “Meet the Press” that he issued his mask order last week because data showed that areas with local mask requirements had “less spread of the virus.”

In Ohio, masks are mandated in counties designated in a “red” zone by the state’s health department.

Gov. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, told “Meet the Press” that while he would issue “more orders” this week, stemming the spread of the virus is about more than just mandates for policies like mask-wearing; it requires a full-scale buy-in from a “weary” public.

“It’s occurring in bars, it’s occurring in churches, it’s occurring in people who have traveled from out of state. But a lot of it, frankly, is from people in casual settings, 20, 30, 40, 50 people gathering together,” DeWine said of where the virus is being spread throughout the state.

“It’s not all about orders. Orders are important, but it’s also about getting people to understand: Hey, this is very, very serious and that while we did a great job early on in Ohio, we’re headed in the wrong direction and frankly, I’m very, very concerned.”

The conversation comes as America struggles to confront the recent surge in virus cases across the country, as well as increases in the hospitalization and death rates in many states.

There have been more than 3.7 million cases and 141,000 deaths in the U.S. attributable to the virus as of Sunday morning, according to an NBC News analysis.

Between Monday and Friday, France averaged 455 new daily coronavirus cases, Germany averaged 408 new daily cases, Italy averaged 182 new daily cases and America averaged 69,060 new daily cases, according to figures from the World Health Organization.

When asked why the country's caseload is so out of step with the rest of the developed world, Collins said that while states that were hit hard early, like New York, took steps to dramatically lower the virus’ spread, other states didn’t and instead rushed toward relaxing coronavirus-related restrictions on things like public life and businesses.

“The rest of the country, perhaps imagining this was just a New York problem, kind of went about their business, didn’t really pay that much attention to [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommendations about the phases necessary to open up safely and jumped over some of those hoops. And people started congregating, and not wearing masks, and feeling like it's over and maybe summer, it'll all go away,” he said.

“And now here we are, not only with 70,000 new cases almost every day, but from my perspective also, quite concerning the number of hospitalizations, which is very close to being as high in the country as it was in, back in April. So, yeah, we got to really double down here.”

Collins also addressed new reports that the White House is against spending billions in new funding for testing and contact tracing, as well as for the CDC, calling the administration’s posture “surprising.”

“There’s always this back and forth between White House and Congress when it comes to appropriations process. And apparently, the opening bid from the White House was a bit surprising, certainly for many of us who were certainly hoping to see more in the way of support,” Collins said.

And amid the White House’s push to discredit Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House coronavirus task force member who leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, he said that no one has asked him to fire Fauci and he finds “that concept unimaginable.”