A phenomenal what-if for present-day epidemiologists and future historians: What if the White House had pulled the trigger and placed masks in the hands of every American within the first few months of the pandemic, before the summer wave arrived in the Sun Belt and California? What effect might it have had on case counts and deaths?
What might a measure like that have done to help masks gain early cultural acceptance in the U.S.?
How would public perceptions of Trump’s handling of the crisis have changed? The single biggest liability he has as the election approaches is the public’s sense that he’s never taken the pandemic seriously enough. Had he sent masks to every household in America in April, he’d have a strong reply to that charge right now. Think how often he mentions the fact that he banned travel from China on January 31 as evidence that he was proactive. Being able to say that he put masks on the faces of the entire country months ago would be a much more vivid and powerful version of that, especially given how enthusiastically public health authorities like Robert Redfield have since endorsed masking.
If Trump loses the election, the chattering classes will spend years arguing over which single decision more than any other ended up costing him the presidency. Don’t sleep on the White House canceling the big planned mask giveaway as a possible correct answer.
Some top administration officials even hoped to tap the mail service’s vast network — and its unrivaled ability to reach every U.S. Zip code — to help Americans obtain personal protective equipment. The idea originated out of the Department of Health and Human Services, which suggested a pack of five reusable masks be sent to every residential address in the country, with the first shipments going to the hardest-hit areas…
Before the news release was sent, however, the White House nixed the plan, according to senior administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal deliberations. Instead, HHS created Project America Strong, a $675 million effort to distribute “reusable cotton face masks to critical infrastructure sectors, companies, healthcare facilities, and faith-based and community organizations across the country.” About 600 million of the 650 million masks ordered have been distributed, according to an HHS spokesperson, including 125 million set aside for schools.
“There was concern from some in the White House Domestic Policy Council and the office of the vice president that households receiving masks might create concern or panic,” one administration official said in response to the scrapped mask plan.
WaPo obtained a copy of the original draft press release by the Postal Service announcing the mask program, which you can read here. It was set to start in Seattle, Detroit, and of course New York, three of the hardest-hit areas of the country in March and April.
What’s missing from the press release and WaPo’s story about it is a concrete date. It’s unclear precisely when the White House was mulling this and ultimately decided against it, although the press release is dated “April XX, 2020.” If in fact this idea was being kicked around in April, it’s impossible to believe that it was nixed for fear of causing “panic.” Panic was already rampant. The country had been locked down for weeks. New York recorded 999 deaths in a single day on April 9. To the extent a supply of free masks would have had any effect on public panic at that point, it probably would have reduced it a bit.
It’s like saying you don’t want to give someone a free fire extinguisher for their home because doing so might panic them about fire. While a fire is already busy consuming their living room.
The need to avert panic also happens to be the explanation Trump gave recently for why he told Bob Woodward on March 19 that he had taken to playing down the threat from the virus. Again, that timeline doesn’t make sense — the country was locking down circa March 19, an unprecedented development that communicated the risk from COVID in a far more dire way than anything Trump could have said. But March 19 was, at least, before New York’s darkest days. The idea of distributing masks via the Postal Service came during or slightly after that dark period, long after panic had already set in. So what’s the real reason the White House rejected the idea?
Is it because Trump has always been ambivalent at best about masks, especially early this year when he was more worried about how the pandemic might hurt his electoral chances by tanking the stock market than he was about how it would affect the public? It makes no sense to have worried about a national mask giveaway causing panic among the general population in April, when COVID had already hit with full force. But it makes *some* sense, per Trump-logic, to worry about that program causing panic among investors, since free masks for everyone would have suggested that the crisis wouldn’t be over quickly. You don’t undertake to supply 330 million people with some essential good if, as Trump was saying at the time, the country would be getting back to normal by summer. You do something drastic like that if you think you’re staring at a long slog destined to drag the Dow Jones average down over time.
But we shouldn’t assume nefarious motives where simple incompetence might explain things better. Maybe these dopes really did convince themselves that once the virus had washed through New York, New Jersey, and a couple of hard-hit urban centers, we’d be done with it. Why send masks to the entire country if you believed only a few cities would end up having a problem with the virus?
I want to hear more about who, precisely, canceled the free-mask program and why. Hopefully reporters are already working on it. In the meantime, here’s a fun update to last night’s post about the ongoing sh*tshow between Trump and the CDC. After the president humiliated Redfield at yesterday’s briefing by insisting that he misstated the timeline for the coming vaccine, the CDC put out a statement that appeared to back Trump up — and then retracted it an hour or so later.
And statement from spox for @CDCDirector Dr Redfield on what he said at today’s hearing re vaccine timeline
(h/t @AnneKFlaherty) pic.twitter.com/BZAeNOoZWI
— Karen Travers (@karentravers) September 16, 2020
Yup, retracting the retraction: After being called out by the president, the CDC gave a statement re-adjusting its vaccine timeline to sound more in line the president. But less than hour later, an agency spokesman said the information should not be used. https://t.co/lgedUnc9Rx
— Anne Flaherty (@AnneKFlaherty) September 16, 2020
God only knows what happened behind the scenes. Maybe Redfield panicked at Trump’s displeasure, then panicked again when his underlings saw his statement and lambasted him for caving in to Trump’s talking points. Or maybe some Trumpist political crony somewhere in the HHS/CDC hierarchy took it upon himself to issue that statement on behalf of Redfield and then got an earful from Redfield himself afterward. Or maybe Redfield really did screw up the vaccine timeline but he’s too embarrassed to flatly admit to it now. There’s no telling who’s in charge, who’s semi-competent versus grossly incompetent, and who’s acting for scientific rather than political reasons. Exactly what you’d want from your government when managing a killer pandemic.