NIH Director Defends Fauci, Says It's 'Bizarre' That Mask-Wearing Became Political Issue

The head of the U.S. government's primary public health agency said he is baffled not at how, but at why, the country's discourse on wearing masks to help curb coronavirus infections has become a political debate.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins on Sunday said reports the Trump administration wants to fire infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci is an "unimaginable concept." Collins told NBC News he's particularly incensed that a basic public health action - like wearing a mask in public - has instead become fodder for political spats and viral video meltdowns. The NIH director said an alien coming to Earth would be "astounded, puzzled and amazed" by the country's political divide over facial masks.

"It is bizarre that we have turned mask-wearing into something political," Collins told Meet the Press. "How could it be that something as basic as a public health action that we have very strong evidence can help seems to attach to people's political party? For starters, can we just walk away from that?

"Our best chance is for all of us to get together and do the right thing, and stop fighting so much about the divide between different political perspectives, which is just getting in the way," Collins continued.

During a Fox News Sunday interview, President Donald Trump continued floating several of his conflicting viewpoints on masks. His replies ranged from him saying "people should have a certain freedom" not to wear them, to "masks cause problems, too," and finally "I think masks are good."

Newsweek reached out to the NIH offices in Bethesda, as well as the White House, for comment.

The political debate over masks continued to astound the director of the NIH, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). During an interview last week, HHS Secretary Alex Azar encouraged social distancing efforts as many states continue to see coronavirus cases and hospitalizations rising. He also asked Americans to wear facial coverings and masks in public.

Last week, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said if every American started wearing masks while out in public right now the entire country could be rid of the coronavirus pandemic in four-to-eight weeks. But Collins responded instead to the reality of the situation, which he described as being a result of many states not wearing masks for weeks despite guidelines instructing otherwise.

"The rest of the country, perhaps imagining this was just a New York problem, kind of went about their business, didn't really pay that much attention to [CDC] recommendations about the phases necessary to open up safely and jumped over some of those hoops. And people started congregating, and not wearing masks, and feeling like 'it's over' and 'maybe summer, it'll all go away,'" Collins said.

When asked if he believes reports the Trump administration is seeking to discredit or fire Dr. Fauci, Collins replied: "Nobody has asked me to do that and I find that concept unimaginable."

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NIH Director Francis Collins said he's baffled not at how, but at why, the country's discourse on wearing masks to help curb coronavirus infections has become a political debate. MANDEL NGAN / Contributor/Getty Images