To echo my friend Michael Warren Davis, I’m a big old centrist when it comes to masks. There are limits to my acquiescence, of course: the guy who yelled at me last week for not wearing one while jogging can go gargle with road salt. But generally speaking, if fogging up my glasses in public makes it a little less likely that even one person will contract the coronavirus, then I’m willing to do my part.
The question is: is that good enough for the great Dr Fauci? These days, it can be hard to tell.
Last week, our Hippocratic high priest got into a heated tiff with Sen. Rand Paul, a fellow doctor who was puzzled that Fauci was wearing a mask at their congressional hearing. Paul pointed out that Fauci had been fully vaccinated. ‘You want to get rid of vaccine hesitancy?’ Paul said. ‘Tell them you can quit wearing your mask after they get the vaccine.’ Fauci disagreed, saying that even vaccination may not be enough of a hedge against COVID. Previously Fauci had surmised we might all still be masking up in 2022, thanks to new variants of the coronavirus that were spreading more easily and may be deadlier.
That’s a lot of ‘mights’ and ‘mays’, the likes of which regularly pepper Fauci’s commentary, and which often blend seamlessly into ‘absolutelys’ and ‘totallys’, pronouncements of certainty. The problem is that the certainties keep proving wrong. Two months ago, after nearly a year of berating Americans to wear a mask, Fauci emerged to declare that actually they might have been incorrect about the number of masks. The revised rule was the same as the one for gin martinis: always more than one but fewer than three. Quoth one of the highest paid medical officials in the land: ‘If you have a physical covering with one layer, you put another layer on, it just makes common sense that it likely would be more effective.’
Well, yes. And it’s also true that if you have two layers on, you’d be even safer with dodecahedral gas masks. Fauci’s double-masking advice sounded less like doctorly counsel and more like a religious fundamentalist claiming the crops have withered because not enough steers were sacrificed. And the line between the two does blur easily. This is, after all, a novel coronavirus. We’ve never seen it before, which is why the science has so often seemed deaf and dumb. At any rate, Fauci quickly backed off his suggestion, clarifying that the data still suggested one mask was enough. And even one mask was one more than Fauci was recommending at the beginning of the pandemic.
Such advice represented the scientific consensus at the time, which back then was less worried about transmission by asymptomatic carriers and wanted to reserve masks for medical professionals. But then a consensus is only as good as what’s presently known. And we might also add: it’s only as good as the constraints imposed on it by human bias. Notably excluded from our current consensus is any kind of skepticism over masks, despite an emerging body of research suggesting that, while wearing masks might prevent the spread of the coronavirus in laboratories, in practice the benefits are far more negligible. Some of these tests aren’t especially robust — the famous Danish study is an example of this — but they still call into question just how necessary all my glasses-fogging really is.
Even the CDC has owned up to this to an extent. After pronouncing for a year that everyone must remain six feet apart, the agency recently revised its social distancing guidelines to say that, at least for schools, three feet apart was totally kosher. I have a feeling that a decade from now, when the COVID culture war has cooled and more research has been done, we’re going to look back and conclude that the measures we took were nowhere near as effective as we thought. How else to explain the Floridian Paradox, under which the Sunshine State has had about the same case and death rates as California despite not locking down to nearly the same extent?
Yet there was Fauci last fall, saying it was ‘very concerning’ that Florida was reopening its bars and restaurants. As the kids like to say, there’s always a tweet.
The problem with Fauci isn’t that he’s a scientist, calmly giving the best advice he can and then revising when necessary. It’s that he’s a scientist crossed with a cable news pundit. He goes on TV, which demands that science be distilled into hot takes and fortune cookie readouts, and he provides. He’s been on Today and Maddow; Brad Pitt played him on Saturday Night Live. No doubt he’ll soon be hosting a revived version of Total Request Live on MTV. He offers up punchy quotes, which are then excised, slapped into news headlines, and taken as gospel by a media incapable of gray areas and halfway houses. It’s a mug’s game, but Fauci plays it willingly and spouts off frequently.
That only leaves confused those of us who are willing to play by some rules but would like a little common-sense consistency already. So now we’re supposed to double-mask but stay three feet apart as cases plunge and vaccinations proliferate? Medical expertise might be the best authority we’ve got during a pandemic, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to answer for itself. Before COVID comes to an end, before he appears on Celebrity Survivor, Fauci should do just that.