One of the first things Joe Biden did when he became president was launch a “100 Day Masking Challenge.” While he doesn’t have the authority to enact a national mask mandate, Biden did what he could: require masks in federal buildings and on federal land, and ask everybody nicely to please, please, please wear a mask. This is a big departure from his predecessor, who made the following statements on wearing masks: “Maybe they’re great, and maybe they’re just good. Maybe they’re not so good” and “It’s voluntary. You don’t have to do it.” Donald Trump additionally characterized President Biden’s mask-wearing habits as such: “Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from them, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”
That’s a typical Trump exaggeration, but Biden is more militant about masks than most: despite being vaccinated, he often double-masks, per Dr. Anthony Fauci’s recommendation. The CDC says that once you’ve been fully vaccinated, “You can gather indoors with fully vaccinated people without wearing a mask or staying six feet apart.” Biden, nevertheless, remains extra cautious. I asked Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and a security research scientist at the University of Saskatchewan, about the president’s mask habits, and what it will take for him — and the rest of us — to finally be able to take our masks off.
Why do you think Joe Biden is so stringent about wearing a mask, even though he is vaccinated?
There’s a couple elements to this — some of them are within my area of expertise and some of them are my opinion because I don’t know what’s going on in Joe Biden’s head. Here’s the part that’s within my expertise: Right now, the majority of the U.S. is still not vaccinated. In general, we still need to be, as a society, wearing masks, and taking other non-pharmaceutical interventions and implementing those with the intent of reducing exposure risk and overall transmission in the community.
I think the reason why Joe Biden is probably still wearing masks and sometimes double-masking, why all of the people in the Biden administration are wearing masks, is really to model the types of behaviors that people should continue to do. Last week, the CDC came out with data that shows that at least the mRNA vaccines are very protective against infection as well as against disease, but again, most of the people in the country have not yet been vaccinated and don’t have that protection. Rather than having a two-tiered society in which vaccinated people, the minority of people, are able to start unmasking and living their lives, I think it’s good practice for President Biden to continue wearing that mask and doing his part to model what people should be doing.
What do you think would have to happen for the president to take off his mask in public?
When the CDC makes a recommendation that if you’re vaccinated, you can start going unmasked in public spaces, that’s probably when I would imagine President Biden will also begin to go unmasked in public spaces because he’s been vaccinated.
Do you think there’s any risk to underselling the vaccine? I also think Biden is masking to be a good role model. But do you think there’s a flip side to that where people would be more willing to sign up for the vaccine if the president demonstrated that getting vaccinated was how we go back to “normal”?
I think that may be a risk. But overall — at least according to polls, which are not always scientific — it does seem like public sentiment about the vaccines is that demand is increasing, and people are increasingly eager to take the vaccines. I think that the bigger issue with regard to making sure that everybody can get vaccinated, apart from the obvious supply issues that we’re still facing, is really the idea that because vaccine distribution remains pretty inequitable that some people will feel left behind. There are still a number of older people, people with high-risk comorbidities, and people of color who do not have access to the vaccines. Overall, that may be more harmful to ultimate uptake by those communities.
There’s also the political element. The group that remains the most vaccine-hesitant or actually, in some cases, just outright rejecting the idea that they’d ever get a vaccine, are actually white Republicans, the same group of people that are also, in many cases, anti-mask. I’m not sure that Joe Biden wearing a mask is going to have any effect on whether that group of people being like, “Ah, you know, I don’t want a vaccine because Joe Biden is suggesting that it doesn’t work very well.” They already don’t want the vaccine for other reasons.
There’s always a danger that you could undersell the vaccine. People have been debating this since the vaccine first came out. You can go around and around in circles about whether public-health experts are being too cautious or not enthusiastic enough about the vaccines or that we’re emphasizing non-pharmaceutical interventions too much at the expense of vaccines. The reality is we need to be focusing on both of those things. We need to be encouraging vaccine uptake, making it possible for people to get access to the vaccines. Definitely the Biden administration needs to do more to make sure that they, in some cases, are going to the people who need to get the vaccines rather than hoping that they’ll come to a place to be vaccinated. We also need to continue using these non-pharmaceutical interventions for just a little bit longer. The data from Israel really shows how important this can be and how this can lead to sustained reductions in transmission at the population level: A lot of people have said, “Oh, look, Israel’s vaccination campaign is going so great, they have this rapid decline in cases in the community after they started their vaccine program,” which is true, but they also started that vaccine program in the context of a very restrictive national lockdown, which also helps to get transmission down.
Do you think that it’s medically necessary for a vaccinated person to wear a mask in a room of people who are also vaccinated?
I don’t think that in a room full of other vaccinated people, a vaccinated person needs to wear a mask. That’s consistent with what the CDC is currently recommending as well: In private homes, vaccinated people don’t need to continue wearing masks. They can see unvaccinated people from a single household with nobody wearing masks, provided that those unvaccinated people are low risk. I think that was specifically designed so that people can see their grandkids. As time goes on, and more and more people become vaccinated, that recommendation will probably be extended to public spaces.
Right now, I think the CDC is being rightfully cautious about relaxing general masking recommendations. Of all the different non-pharmaceutical interventions, masking is one of the easiest to implement, despite the fact that some people don’t like wearing masks. But there’s not really a medical need for a vaccinated person to be wearing a mask.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.