Rand Paul confronts Fauci: Isn't asking vaccinated people to wear masks just "theater"?

Ah, it’s been awhile since we had a gratuitously hostile Senate confrontation between Paul and Fauci in which they spend five minutes talking past each other.

It’s one of the few things I’ll miss about the pandemic once it’s over.

Paul wanted to know today why Fauci and the rest of the public-health bureaucracy keep parading around in masks, sometimes two masks, despite the fact that they’ve all been vaccinated. Can you point me to even a single case of a vaccinated person being reinfected, Paul asks him? Even if you could, is there any reason to think a mask would have prevented that reinfection?

But that’s not why Fauci et al. are still wearing their masks and encouraging other vaccinated people to wear them. They’re not worried about being reinfected, they’re worrying about infecting others. That was always the core reason for mask-wearing — not that it protects the wearer (although it appears to provide some protection) but that it can limit the spray of aerosols from the wearer’s mouth, reducing the risk of infection to those around them. What Paul should be asking him in the clip below is why the feds’ scientific brain trust continues to fear that vaccinated people will infect others when the data we have right now suggests that the vaccines reduce asymptomatic infection by 94 percent. In other words, very few vaccinated people are being infected in the first place, so why are we worried about them infecting others?

To which Fauci would presumably say: Well, 94 percent isn’t 100 percent. We’re trying to prevent every infection that we can. If we can end the pandemic more quickly by asking vaccinated people to wear masks, further reducing the already small risk that they’ll transmit the virus to others, why not do that?

At the end of the day, all debates about COVID precautions are ultimately arguments over respective risk tolerance.

They also end up in a squabble over variants. Yes, says Fauci, of course Paul is right that people who’ve been vaccinated or recovered from the disease are immune from “wild-type” COVID, a.k.a. common COVID. But they might not be immune to the variants. The Brazilian and South African variants have proved capable of reinfecting COVID survivors. Those stains aren’t common in the U.S. right now but the new variant that’s spreading in New York City *is* pretty common there and it resembles the South African variant in worrisome ways. Being vaccinated means you’re immune from common COVID; whether it means you’re also immune from the Brazilian, South African, and New York variants remains to be seen.

Although there’s more good news on that front every day:

AstraZeneca Plc’s and Pfizer Inc.’s Covid-19 vaccines may help protect patients from the coronavirus variant that emerged in Brazil, scientists said in a study that may alleviate some concerns about their role in slowing the pandemic…

The U.K. and Brazil variants rendered the vaccines about three times less effective than against earlier strains, the scientists found. Against the South Africa variant, the researchers found a nine-fold reduction in the level of neutralization by the Astra vaccine and a 7.6-fold reduction for the Pfizer shot.

Note the last line. The vaccines can still beat the South African variant, but that one’s no joke.

Which, I guess, leaves us with this question: Will it ever be safe in Fauci’s view to take off the masks? There’ll always be some concerning variant circulating somewhere on the globe that could potentially reach us here and start reinfecting vaccinated people. I assume he’d say it’s a matter of doing more extensive genetic sequencing in the U.S. so that we know exactly which variants are prevalent at a given moment. If the British variant is the one that’s spreading most widely, well, that’s no big deal for the vaccines. Once we’ve reached herd immunity we’ll have beaten that one, by and large. If it’s the New York variant that’s running wild, that might call for extra precautions until we know that the vaccines work against it. But for sure, at no point this year will we be told, “Good news, you never have to wear your mask again.” Hyper-cautious public-health bureaucracies don’t work that way.