Comments Sunday from top White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci indicated a possible shift in federal recommendations on masks outdoors, representing a departure from his past comments on when people should wear masks.
Fauci said on ABC’s “This Week” that it’s “common sense” there’s a lower risk of spreading the virus outdoors and foreshadowed a potential change in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines to that effect. He said the agency would make its recommendations, coming as a larger portion of the population gets vaccinated, after ensuring it looks “at the data and the data backs it up.”
“We’re seeing more and more talked about, I know the CDC is looking at perhaps revising their guidance about wearing masks outdoors at this time,” host George Stephanopoulos said. “What’s your best guidance on that at this point?”
“I don’t want to get ahead of them… but I think it’s pretty common sense now that outdoor risk is really, really quite low. Particularly, I mean if you are a vaccinated person wearing a mask outdoors, I mean obviously the risk is minuscule,” Fauci responded.
“What … the country is going to be hearing soon, is updated guidelines from the CDC. The CDC is a science-based organization. They don’t want to make any guidelines unless they look at the data and the data backs it up,” Fauci continued.
Fauci’s comments come as CDC guidance continues to tell Americans to “wear masks in public settings, at events and gatherings, and anywhere they will be around other people.”
It also says masks are “NOT a substitute for social distancing. Masks should still be worn in addition to staying 6 feet apart, especially when indoor around people who don’t live in our household.” It does add that masks “may not be necessary when you are outside by yourself away from others, or with people who live in your household.”
Recent CDC guidelines also say fully vaccinated people should continue to wear “masks, maintain physical distance, and practice other prevention measures when visiting with unvaccinated people from multiple households.”
Fauci has for months been saying that being outdoors is safer than being indoors. He said in a discussion with the medical journal JAMA in August that “outdoor is always better than indoor if you want to do any kind of a function.”
But he also encouraged people last year to still wear masks outdoors. He told the health care forum Advisory Board in July that “on the rare occasion” people come to his house they are outdoors and socially distanced, while wearing “masks, unless we are eating.”
Fauci also said in an August Facebook Live chat with then-Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo that masks should still be worn outside despite decreased risk.
“I would get as much outdoors as you possibly can. If you look at the super spreader events that have occurred, I think it’s incorrect to call people super spreaders. The event is super spread. They’re almost always inside,” Fauci told Raimondo. “Nothing’s 100%, but it’s almost invariable that it’s indoors. So when you are indoors, make sure you have a mask, when you’re outdoors, keep the mask on.”
Fauci also told Raimondo he wears a mask when in a car with others even if the windows are open.
“I keep the mask on, keep the windows open,” he said.
Top public officials have faced broadsides since the beginning of the pandemic over shifting public health guidance. But they’ve defended the changes as based on the best understanding of the science at any given time, with recommendations changing as more information comes in.
Former Surgeon General Jerome Adams made this point last year when officials began recommending mask-wearing after initially advising against it.
“What has changed in our recommendation?” Adams said in a White House briefing in July. “We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms.” Adams also cited the fact there was a lack of personal protection equipment like masks early in the pandemic when there were concerns about hospitals being overwhelmed.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), where Fauci serves as the director, and the CDC did not answer queries from Fox News before the publication of this story.
Among the questions asked were whether vaccinated Americans need to wear masks in crowded areas like a farmers market or a bar if the setting is outdoors; whether children playing outdoor sports need to wear masks, as many are in some parts of the country; and whether the CDC should have lifted outdoor mask guidelines sooner.
NIAID also did not answer a question on whether Fauci and others continuing to recommend mask wearing for vaccinated people might be removing an incentive for people to get vaccinated.
Fauci in his Sunday interview with “This Week” added that vaccines are “even more effective than what the initial numbers of the clinical trial” indicated.
But, he warned, “we’re having still about 60,000 new infections per day. That’s a precarious level and we don’t want that to go up.”
It’s unclear what level of coronavirus infection level Fauci and others see as the proper number to further ease coronavirus restrictions. He told CNN last month the U.S. should wait until numbers drop below 10,000 new infections per day “and maybe even considerably less than that.”
This is also a shift from early pandemic rhetoric. Health guidelines like social distancing were sold to Americans then as a temporary way to “flatten the curve” so hospitals are not overwhelmed — not necessarily to prevent a certain level of infections from entering the community.