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Column: Who’s in charge at the Mayo Clinic — the doctors, or Mike Pence?

Vice President Pence meets with staff and a patient at the Mayo Clinic. You might notice he's the only one not wearing a mask.
(Pool report)

Vice President Mike Pence, who’s supposed to be in charge of the federal government’s coronavirus response, is being properly pilloried Tuesday for strolling through the Mayo Clinic without wearing a face mask.

This despite a clinic rule, issued April 13, requiring “all patients and visitors to wear a face covering or mask to help slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Yes, it’s true that Pence displayed the utmost arrogance and insensitivity and a profound ignorance of what it means to be a national political leader by flouting the rule. But there’s a party in this affair that deserves even more blame: The management of the Mayo Clinic.

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.

Vice President Mike Pence

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The Rochester, Minn., clinic has been silent about why it failed to hold Pence to its own policy or why it believes he didn’t pose a threat to clinic personnel or patients by failing to wear a mask. The clinic’s published rule doesn’t list any exceptions. It’s fair to observe that Pence, by refusing to wear a mask, made chumps of the Mayo management. It’s also fair to say that they should have had the spine to stand up to a politician.

“Patients and visitors are asked to bring their own face covering or mask to wear,” the clinic’s rule says. “If a patient or visitor does not have a mask, Mayo Clinic will provide one.” It attributes its guidance to “recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Mayo Clinic experts.”

That’s odd, because Pence told reporters after the visit that he believed that he was following guidance from the CDC. “As vice president of the United States,” he said, according to a pool report, “I’m tested for the coronavirus on a regular basis, and everyone who is around me is tested for the coronavirus.”

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That’s irrelevant, as Pence should know. COVID-19 tests are not 100% accurate by any means; Pence could be an asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic carrier, and in any event he didn’t produce test evidence for the clinic before being admitted.

Everyone else in the vice-presidential delegation, including Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn, was face-masked, as were the clinic escorts and the patient Pence met with personally.

Pence said, according to the pool, “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.” Of course, the face masks issued as weapons against the spread of the coronavirus don’t cover the eyes.

For Pence’s information and to remind the Mayo Clinic, here’s what the CDC’s guidance says:

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“The virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity — for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing — even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms.... CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain ... especially in areas of significant community-based transmission. It is critical to emphasize that maintaining 6-feet social distancing remains important to slowing the spread of the virus. CDC is additionally advising the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.

There’s nothing there, obviously, about vice presidents being exempt. It’s worth observing, by the way, that Pence failed to maintain a six-foot distance from others during his tour.

Beyond that, there’s a concept known as setting an example that Pence, and the Mayo management, seem to have overlooked. Pence in a face-mask would have sent a strong signal to the American public that going without is socially unacceptable behavior.

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On the other hand, it’s consistent with Trump administration behavior. Trump himself has disdained wearing a face mask. He has consistently flouted his own policies as when he issued an advisory discouraging states from prematurely opening businesses and followed it with a series of tweets supporting demonstrators against stay-at-home rules in several states: “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN,” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” etc.

Leadership is an alien notion to this administration.

As for the Mayo Clinic, what were they thinking? The clinic says it made Pence and his staff aware of its face mask policy. It posted, then deleted, a tweet stating, “Mayo Clinic had informed @VP of the masking policy prior to his arrival today.”

But the clinic hasn’t explained why it admitted Pence to the premises without a face mask. Pence doesn’t own the place. He has no authority to enter the clinic without authorization, and certainly without complying with its safety measures.

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It’s conceivable that the clinic management weighed the pros and cons of standing its ground with the vice president of the United States and figured that it was better to look pusillanimous than to tick off the Trump administration. Wrong choice. If the Mayo Clinic it sets down a principle grounded in public health, it should brook no backchat, no matter where it comes from.

The fact is that the Mayo Clinic is perhaps the most respected medical institution in the country. By reputation, at least, it sets nationwide standards for the practice of medicine. If it rolls over for anyone, vice president or otherwise, what’s its reputation worth going forward? Short answer: Nothing.

The Mayo Clinic blew a major opportunity to communicate proper anti-virus hygiene to the public. Instead, it communicated just the opposite — that it’s not serious about its rules, that wearing face masks is just theater anyway and not really necessary, and that it will allow big shots to get away with anything. None of that is cause for pride.


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