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Masks Are An Important Component To Fight COVID-19 Crisis, Fauci Says

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So how can public health officials gain the trust of Americans who are skeptical of interventions like masks to fight the coronavirus effectively? Dr. Anthony Fauci is on the line now. He is the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH and a member of President Trump's Coronavirus Task Force. Dr. Fauci, thanks for being on the program again.

ANTHONY FAUCI: Good to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: Why has it been so hard to convince Americans to wear masks?

FAUCI: You know, that difficult, really, to give a single explanation. There is, you know, a bit of pushback on authority - the American spirit of not wanting to be told what to do. But I think as we've heard from the segment that you just played, the data and the evidence that this can be very helpful as part of a multifaceted way to get these cases down and to diminish the transmissibility and acquisition is very clear. So we just have to try to get a crisp, clear message to people that this is an important tool in our armamentarium. We can actually turn things around.

And as one of your guests just mentioned on the clip, it isn't the only thing, but it is an important component. There's physical distancing. There's things like closing bars, like not doing things as much inside, like diminishing the number of people in an indoor restaurant, going outdoors more than indoors. All of that together with a mask will be the important thing that turns this around.

MARTIN: You said there needs to be a crystallized, clear, concise message. But, you know, the administration has given mixed messages about masks for many months now. Is it time for a federal mask mandate?

FAUCI: Well, I'm not sure a mandate - I think a federal, from-the-top signal that this is important. So I was very pleased to see the president wearing a mask and tweeting about masks. The vice president does that consistently. So I think we've turned the corner. We're on the road of a consistent message. The problem with mandates is then you've got to enforce them. And then you get into the problem. I have trust in the American people that if we put a strong emphasis on the importance of wearing masks, that we will come around and do that and get that percentage up above the relatively low percentage of people that are using masks.

MARTIN: I want to continue on this theme of trust, actually. Daily White House coronavirus briefings are scheduled to start again as early as today. Is that going to help rebuild or build for the first time public trust in the federal government's management of the pandemic?

FAUCI: Well, I hope so. I mean, certainly, it has the potential to do that. If we do those conferences, come out and have consistent, clear, noncontradictory messages, I believe it would be very helpful in getting people on the track of knowing the direction that we need to go to get this pandemic under control.

MARTIN: So what's going to be different this time? Because, as you know, in the past, President Trump used those briefings to propagate misleading or outright false information.

FAUCI: Well, you know, I'm just - I'm hopeful. I'm an optimist fundamentally, Rachel. I think if we do this and we do it right, it will be very informative for the American public. And I hope that that's what we see as we move forward with these. The decision has been made. I believe it was announced yesterday that they will resume. Let's just see how it goes. I'm hopeful that it will be value added to our efforts.

MARTIN: Will you be there? Will you be there every time?

FAUCI: You know, I don't know. I can't guarantee that. I mean, that's up to the White House. I would imagine that I would be at least in on some of them. But we have not heard anything definitive yet. I mean, if they want me there, I'll be more than happy to be there. And if they - if not, that's OK, too - as long as we get the message across.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about something NPR's reporting - that last week, the White House instructed hospitals to stop reporting data about the coronavirus cases they were seeing into the CDC system that they had been using and to instead send that data directly to the Department of Health and Human Services. More than a hundred public health organizations have now signed a letter to the task force that you sit on saying that reporting change threatens the country's response to COVID-19. What's your response?

FAUCI: You know, I don't have a response yet. This is something, Rachel, that's so far out of the area that I'm responsible for. I have to take a look at that in more detail and find out what the concern is and why they feel it is not a good thing to do. I can't come down on either side of it because I'm really not that much involved in it. So I'd have to pass on that, if you will.

MARTIN: Fair enough. Let's move to testing. China has been using a testing method for coronavirus virus called pool testing. They've been doing this for months. The FDA finally issued its first emergency-use authorization for the technique last Friday. Why is it still so hard to get enough tests for the United States and to get the results back quickly?

FAUCI: Well, you know, we're having a situation here where we're having, obviously, as you all - we all know from the news, a considerably significant outbreak, particularly in the Southern states. So we have to do a lot of testing. The testing is improving. And we've heard from Brett Giroir, who is referred to as the testing czar, that we have tests going out there. And as the weeks and months go by, we'll have even many more - millions more. So we're hopeful that very soon, we'll get to a situation where we can do a much wider blanket testing because testing is important not only for the test.

I think the thing that we need to make sure if it occurs - that we correct it - that we get the results of the tests back in a very ample amount of time because if the test comes back multiple days later, it kind of lessens the impact of why you're doing the test to begin with. So I think that's one of the important things that we need to focus on because there are some areas - not all - testing is going well in some areas. But we want to make sure that when they do get tests, that we get them back in a timely manner.

MARTIN: May I ask you about something else in the news?

FAUCI: Yes.

MARTIN: Florida teachers are suing the governor there because they say it's too dangerous to go back into the classroom full time, as he has ordered. They clearly don't trust that the state has done enough to protect them? Do you believe, as a public health official, that Florida is moving too fast to reopen schools.

FAUCI: You know, Rachel, I really can't comment specifically on any given state because I don't have the precise details of what's going on in a particular area, particular counties. The one thing I can say is that the fundamental default should be to try within the framework of always being very sensitive to and accountable to the safety and the welfare of children, as well as the parent, to try to get the schools open because of the downstream negative consequences that we know can occur unintended when children are not in school.

But having said that, we have a very large country, very heterogeneous. And I think in some parts of the country, it'll be very easy to open, where in other parts of the country you may need to do some modifications of scheduling, doing things that are maybe hybrid about in class as well as online. There are a lot of different versions of that. But I don't think I can comment.

MARTIN: What are you worried about for the fall? I mean, we said there would be a first wave, a reprieve and a second wave. We didn't - we never got out of the first wave.

FAUCI: Well, what you just said - what I have been quoted as saying. And it's true, Rachel. We are still in a significant first wave. Let's get that down to baseline. And we'll be much better prepared when the fall comes with the fall season - that we will actually be able to handle it.

MARTIN: Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also throwing out the symbolic first pitch at the MLB first game on Thursday. We got to mention that. Dr. Fauci, we appreciate your time.

FAUCI: Thank you very much. Good to - thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.