‘Bizarre’ that face masks are a partisan issue, NIH chief says

National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins testified at a Senate hearing on COVID-19 tests.
National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins testified May 7 at a Senate hearing on efforts to create new technologies that would produce tens of millions of COVID-19 tests.
(Pool Photo)

It’s “bizarre” that mask-wearing has become a partisan issue in the U.S., and the “divide between different political perspectives” is making it harder to curb the coronavirus, the director of the National Institutes of Health said.

Speaking Sunday on NBC News’ “Meet the Press,” NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said he didn’t want anybody to think that wearing a mask is “something optional” as the nation attempts to tamp down the COVID-19 outbreak, which is running at record levels.

“Imagine you were an alien coming to the planet Earth and looking around,” Collins said. “You would be totally astounded, puzzled, amazed. ... 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?”

Opinion polls have shown that many more Democrats than Republicans say masks should be worn in public places most or all of the time.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, echoed the plea to wear face masks on CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” adding that it might be “wishful thinking” that everyone will mask up.


“There’s a hardened percentage of the population that just feels that the masks are some infringement on their liberty,” Gottlieb said. The noncompliance makes it difficult to get the virus’ spread fully under control, he said.

President Trump said in a “Fox News Sunday” interview that he wouldn’t issue a nationwide mask order as a matter of “freedom.”

Collins said nobody at the White House has asked him to demote or fire Dr. Anthony Fauci, a once ubiquitous figure at coronavirus task force briefings who hasn’t spoken publicly at the White House since late April.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which Fauci has led since 1984, is part of the Bethesda, Md.-based NIH.

Trump, in his pre-taped comments on Fox, called Fauci a “little bit of an alarmist” but said the two men have a “great relationship.”

More states are imposing mandatory mask orders as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in the U.S. There are still holdouts, such as Mississippi, whose governor, Republican Tate Reeves, said he’d tailor the requirement to local conditions. Thirteen of 82 counties in Mississippi have mask mandates, Reeves said Sunday on CNN.