The claim: An email from Dr. Anthony Fauci proves he knew masks were ineffective at mitigating the spread of COVID-19
More than a month before the World Health Organization labeled the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci received an email asking whether the writer should wear a face mask while traveling.
“Masks are really for infected people to prevent them from spreading infection to people who are not infected rather than protecting uninfected people from acquiring infection,” Fauci wrote back in a Feb. 5 message. “The typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out virus, which is small enough to pass through the material.”
The country’s leading infectious disease expert went on to say he would not recommend the writer wear a mask during travel to a “very low risk location.”
Fauci’s response was among thousands of pages of emails released to media outlets under the Freedom of Information Act. Buzzfeed News and The Washington Post used the emails to paint a picture about the early days of the pandemic response, but some of the messages also have spread rapidly as misinformation on social media platforms.
Fact check: False claims about Fauci email ‘leak’ mischaracterize FIOA requests and release
For example, Fauci’s response about masks has been held up as evidence that he knew early on that masks were ineffective. One commenter on a June 2 Instagram post wrote that Fauci “sat back and watched as we put face diapers on our children.”
Different versions of the post have been shared thousands of times, but this line of thinking ignores the evolution of understanding about the effectiveness of masks and guidance about wearing them.
Responding to questions about the Feb. 5 email during a June 3 appearance on CNN, Fauci said his understanding changed as more information became available about asymptomatic transmission of the virus and the effectiveness of masks outside of hospitals.
“If we realized all of those things back then, of course, you’re asking the question would you have done something different if you knew what you know now, of course people would have done that. It’s so obvious,” he said on CNN.
The Instagram user who shared the post on June 2 did not respond to a request for comment.
Fauci and public health agencies have updated their guidance on masks and other mitigation measures as scientists learned more about how COVID-19 works and spreads.
Public officials initially discouraged masks over fears of shortages for health care providers.
Fact check: No, email to Fauci doesn’t contain origin of a ‘coronavirus bioweapon’
Then-U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams tweeted in all caps on Feb. 29, 2020, that people should “STOP BUYING MASKS!” He said in the since-deleted tweet that masks were ineffective and widespread use could lead to shortages.
Fauci said during a March 8 interview on “60 Minutes” that “there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.”
But on April 3, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began urging people to wear masks in public. That was nearly a month after the WHO labeled the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic.
Fauci’s position changed, too. The same day the CDC released its new guidelines, Fauci said during an appearance on “Fox & Friends” people should wear masks when they can’t social distance.
Since then, Fauci has explained his recommendation on masks changed as more information became available about the way COVID-19 spreads and the effectiveness of masks outside of hospitals.
The WHO changed its mask recommendation in June 2020. In July 2020 the CDC said, “cloth face coverings are a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19 that could reduce the spread of the disease, particularly when used universally within communities.”
Fact check: What’s true and what’s false about face masks?
In March, the CDC released new guidelines for people vaccinated against COVID-19. Those included guidance that vaccinated people could resume activities without wearing a mask.
WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 23: Anthony Fauci, director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH, attaches his mask before testifying at a Senate Health, Education, and Labor and Pensions Committee on Capitol Hill, on September 23, 2020 in Washington, DC. Dr. Fauci addressed the testing of vaccines and if they will be ready by the end of the year or early 2021. (Photo by Graeme Jennings- Pool/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775450533 ORIG FILE ID: 1228670712 (Photo: Pool, Getty Images)
Our ruling: Missing context
The claim that an email from Fauci proves he knew masks were ineffective at mitigating the spread of COVID-19 is MISSING CONTEXT, based on our research. Fauci sent the email on Feb. 5, 2020, more than a month before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic. The understanding about the effectiveness of masks and guidance about wearing them evolved during the pandemic, as did Fauci’s position on their use.
Our fact-check sources:
- The Washington Post, June 1, Anthony Fauci’s pandemic emails: ‘All is well despite some crazy people in this world’
- Buzzfeed News, June 1, Anthony Fauci’s Emails Reveal The Pressure That Fell On One Man
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 14, CDC calls on Americans to wear masks to prevent COVID-19 spread
- The World Health Organization, June 5, WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 5 June 2020
- Forbes, Oct. 20, Is Trump Right That Fauci Discouraged Wearing Masks? Yes—But Early On And Not For Long
- The New York Times, April 27, How Mask Guidelines Have Evolved
- YouTube, March 8, 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci talks with Dr. Jon LaPook about Covid-19
- CNN, June 3, Berman reads Dr. Fauci some of his released emails. Hear his response
- USA TODAY, Feb. 17, Fact check: Trump surgeon general initially dismissed mask-wearing, but then endorsed
- The New York Times, April 3, 2020, A Debate Over Masks Uncovers Deep White House Divisions
- The World Health Organization, March 11, 2020, WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 11 March 2020
- Fox News, April 3, 2020, White House coronavirus task force to announce face covering guidance
- The Washington Post, July 24, Fauci on how his thinking has evolved on masks, asymptomatic transmission
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed June 3, When You’ve Been Fully Vaccinated How to Protect Yourself and Others
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