From the surgeon general who brought you “do it for your big momma” comes another profound moment in intellectual flatulence: that the government reversing its stance on face masks is kind of like when doctors gave cocaine as medicine.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, in an interview with CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday, revisited the federal government’s guidelines from early March in which officials—including Adams—explicitly told the public to not purchase face masks in response to the coronavirus. As Mother Jones notes, Adams previously appeared on the political talk show on March 8, sans mask, and told host Margaret Brennan that masks “do not work for the general public.” This was a followup to his earlier appeal to the public, which he delivered via Twitter the week before: “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS.”
Adams graced the show again, this time wearing a mask. Naturally, Brennan wanted to know if he perhaps felt...I don’t know, a tinge of regret about the whole thing.
Adams’ response: Remember when we used to put fucking leeches on people? Idk, bro, shit gets wild sometimes!
“It’s important for people to understand that once upon a time we prescribed cigarettes for asthmatics, and leeches and cocaine and heroin for people as medical treatments,” Adams said in response to Brennan’s question. “When we learn better we do better.”
Pbbbbbbbtht. At least he was wearing a face mask?
Yes, the medical establishment used to prescribe cocaine, which can be a powerful anesthetic, to treat all manner of ills in the late 1800s and early 20th century. And yes, cigarettes were prescribed to asthmatics at roughly the same time but they didn’t contain tobacco. Instead, they were made up of a variety of leaves believed to provide respiratory relief at the time.
In any case, none of these comparisons are appropriate for the issue at hand: a face mask policy that was given, then reversed, within weeks, at a time when other countries experiencing the coronavirus pandemic were explicitly advising their residents to wear face masks. And as Brennan notes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was analyzing data about asymptomatic spread of the virus as early as February.
The government reversed its stance on masks in early April, after what CNN describes as a “heated internal debate” about the effects of issuing such a guidance. The reversal came after studies showed that more asymptomatic people were spreading the coronavirus than previously thought (this New York Times article from March 31 provides a helpful time capsule). But part of the disagreement among federal officials had less to do with science than concerns about public behavior.
Some worried that advising Americans to wear face masks would keep from them social distancing properly. Reluctance to give face mask guidance also stemmed from the shortage of medical-grade masks for hospital workers, and concerns about whether a face mask guidance would further jeopardize the availability of those masks for frontline workers. Right now, as the country continues to battle its first wave of infections, hospital workers still aren’t guaranteed to have the protective equipment they need—that’s not a data or science failure, it’s a management failure.
This would have been the complete answer, but it’s not the answer Adams gave. And the fact that the goddamn SURGEON fucking GENERAL of these United States is incapable of giving a truthful, unmuddled answer to a simple, important question is part of the problem this country has had with managing its pandemic. It’s one thing to be wrong and loud, but when the opportunity to come correct (and save some lives) arises, Adams—and the administration he works for—would rather just dribble some nonsense and let everyone else figure it out.