Vice President Mike Pence is the White House official who chairs the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force. On Tuesday, he tromped around the Mayo Clinic without wearing a mask, in clear violation of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and the clinic’s rules.
Per CNN, the Rochester, Minnesota-based clinic has had the mandatory mask policy in place since April 13, as well as tweeted (and deleted) that it informed Pence “of the masking policy prior to his arrival today.” Pence did not shake hands while roaming a blood and plasma donation center inside the clinic, but he was close to numerous administrators, doctors, and an employee who was donating plasma after recovering from the virus.
The vice president told reporters that he receives coronavirus tests regularly, according to CNN, so he isn’t bound by the same health guidelines as the little people.
“As vice president of the United States I’m tested for the coronavirus on a regular basis, and everyone who is around me is tested for the coronavirus,” Pence said. “When the CDC issued guidelines about wearing a mask it was their recognition that people that may have the coronavirus could prevent the possibility of conveying the virus to someone else by wearing a mask.”
“Since I don’t have the coronavirus, I thought it’d be a good opportunity for me to be here, to be able to speak to these researchers these incredible health care personnel and look them in the eye and say thank you,” Pence added.
The virus is believed to primarily spread on airborne droplets that leave the mouth or nose, and masks primarily stop those droplets from leaving rather than entering. That means that when a person wears a mask, they are primarily acting to protect others from contracting the illness rather than protecting themselves from infection.
Pence claims to be tested once a week, which is hardly reassuring given evidence that the incubation period of the virus is on average shorter than that, and that viral shedding is believed to be highest in the early stages of infection. Coronavirus test kits are also suspected by some medical researchers to have a high rate of false negatives. To make it clear: not testing positive does not mean the guidelines magically don’t apply to you. Wearing some form of mask like a cloth covering, then, even after a recent negative test result, is about respecting an implicit social contract to limit potential harm to others. Research has shown that the more people that wear masks, the greater the odds transmission rates of the virus can be lowered.
The CDC face mask advisory as well as its accompanying FAQ contain no sections saying that, actually, it’s fine to ignore the whole thing if you just have a really strong gut feeling that you don’t have the virus. But the CDC does explicitly say it is necessary whenever around other people:
A cloth face covering should be worn whenever people are in a community setting, especially in situations where you may be near people. These settings include grocery stores and pharmacies. These face coverings are not a substitute for social distancing. Cloth face coverings are especially important to wear in public in areas of widespread COVID-19 illness.
In other words, Pence is prioritizing looking like a macho man and conveying the contradictory impression that everything is fine (it is not) over not being a beef-witted potential biohazard. As the New York Times has noted, politicians of both parties ranging from governors and senators to city mayors have forewent masks in public, which sends contradictory signals to the public that perhaps they too might have a special reason not to inconvenience themselves. But unlike Pence, those officials are not in charge of the federal coronavirus task force.
“If you’re instructing people to do stuff and you yourself aren’t doing it, that often sends the wrong message, and that’s an inconsistency in the guidance,” Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security infectious disease physician Dr. Amesh Adalja told the Times. “... If you’re part of a team that’s actually advocating people to wear those masks, then I think it becomes odd if you’re not wearing a mask.”
Per CNBC, the vice president was the only member of the administration who appeared to have ignored the Mayo Clinic’s mask rules during the visit, with Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn being one example. However, Trump has refused to wear a mask, claiming that he doesn’t want to look weird when he meets “presidents, dictators, kings, [and] queens,” and has advocated ending shutdowns of businesses across the country as quickly as possible despite wariness from the medical and scientific community that the U.S. isn’t prepared to do so.