U.S. White House officials rushed to secure for themselves 3,600 surgical masks from Taiwan even as the administration advised there was no reason for the general public to wear them during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Wednesday report in the Washington Post.
But a National Security Council (NSC) official who had been monitoring the spread of the virus in China since January, deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger, was sounding the alarm that it posed a bigger threat than other administration staff acknowledged at the time. He also believed that limited spread in some Asian countries might be due to widespread use of masks by the general population. According to the Post, one official said that by early March, NSC officials discovered there was not enough of them on hand to provide one to all personnel working at the White House.
However, one of the world’s biggest producers of surgical masks, Taiwan, was ramping up production and had begun shipping them to overseas allies. According to the Post, in mid-March Taiwan agreed to transfer 500,000 masks to the U.S., which planned to put them into the Strategic National Stockpile for distribution to front-line emergency personnel and medical workers.
After being thwarted in its efforts to buy masks on the open markethe NSC earmarked around 3,600 of them for White House use, according to the Post, with 1,800 reserved for the NSC itself and the rest going to the White House medical unit for distribution where it saw fit.
At that time, a White House official told the Post, “it was not CDC guidance for all staff to have them, so in the same way you couldn’t request a test if you were asymptomatic and had no cause for concern, we weren’t giving masks from our stockpiles at that time… [if mask usage became mandatory] we would have enough for staff still in the building to protect them.” It could also obtain more from national stockpiles, that person added.
Until the April about-face, the CDC, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, and Donald Trump were all urging the public that healthy individuals do not need to wear masks in public even as a debate raged within the White House whether that was the wrong strategy.
The CDC’s official rationale for changing the guidance is that more evidence had emerged regarding how easily people with asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic coronavirus infections can spread the virus—despite there already having been indications that it was better than doing nothing and the administration’s contradictory assertions that the masks needed to be reserved for health workers in high-risk environments like isolation wards.
That sent the signal that perhaps the administration was more interested in managing public perception of the shortage rather than pursuing evidence-based policy, which in turn lowered public trust and may have even encouraged hoarding. (The CDC still says most of the public should wear cloth face coverings or scarves, while medical-grade surgical and N95 masks should be reserved for medical personnel.)
According to the Post, one administration official said three-quarters of White House staff are now telecommuting, while the White House denied there had ever been a shortage of masks in the first place.
“While we would never discuss the specifics about safety and security measures at the White House, the Medical Unit and Military Office have the needed supplies to execute on long-standing continuity of government plans that essential personnel are protected by and briefed on as soon as they arrive—and quite frankly, it’s ignorant, naive or intentionally dishonest for anyone to suggest otherwise,” spokesman Hogan Gidley told the paper in a statement.
Despite the updated guidance, the president has refused to wear any kind of mask.