CDC Chief Walks Back Masks vs Vaccine Comments

Ralph Ellis

September 17, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

CDC Director Robert Redfield MD said Wednesday that wearing a face mask may provide more protection against the coronavirus than a potential vaccine. Redfield also said it would likely be 2021 before any vaccine is available to most Americans.

But, hours later, after President Donald Trump told reporters Redfield was "confused," the CDC director appeared to backtrack on Twitter.

"I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine, because the immunogenicity may be 70%," Redfield said in testimony before a Senate appropriations committee. "And if I don't get an immune response, the vaccine is not going to protect me. This face mask will."

Asked about Redfield's comments during a press briefing, Trump said Redfield was wrong.

"Okay, number one, it's not more effective, by any means, than a vaccine," Trump said of Redfield's comments about masks. "And I called him about that. And I believe that if you ask him, he would probably say that he didn't understand the question."

As for the CDC's director's claim that a vaccine would likely not be available to the general public until next summer or fall, Trump also called Redfield's words incorrect.

"He made a mistake when he said that.  It's just incorrect information," Trump said. "And I called him, and he didn't tell me that, and I think he got the message maybe confused."

In a pair of tweets shortly after Trump spoke, Redfield said, "I 100% believe in the importance of vaccines and the importance in particular of a #COVID19 vaccine. A COVID-19 vaccine is the thing that will get Americans back to normal everyday life."

He added that, "The best defense we currently have against this virus are the important mitigation efforts of wearing a mask, washing your hands, social distancing and being careful about crowds."

Though Trump has not issued a national mask mandate, saying he wants to leave that decision up to governors, the CDC has recommended the general public wear facial coverings of some sort to curb the spread of the virus. Many state and local leaders have issued their own mask mandates.

 "These face masks are the most important, powerful public health tool we have. And I will continue to appeal for all Americans, all individuals in our country, to embrace these face coverings," Redfield said to the Senate committee. "I've said if we did it for 6, 8, 10, 12 weeks, we'd bring this pandemic under control."

Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at Health and Human Services, also testified and said wearing a face covering "is one of the most important things we can do to prevent spread." 

When asked about a vaccine, Redfield said that he thought a "very limited supply" of a vaccine would be available late this year, but widespread distribution probably won't come until the second or third quarter of 2021.

That timetable lines up with those offered other administration officials, such as Anthony Fauci MD.


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