The One Year Mask Mandate Mark

I was a maskless, essential government worker in Texas and the FDA

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It’s been one year now since the mask orders came down from Washington to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Pres. Biden said Tuesday that everyone needs to keep wearing masks even after vaccinated. He’s wrong.

When COVID hit the U.S. last March, I wanted to help. So I accepted a job as the chairman of a coronavirus task force for a large county government in Texas. I felt useful in a challenging time for the country. I was also happy to be considered “essential” and go to an office with all the county judge’s staff, rather than be isolated at home.

Looking back now, it’s amazing that none of us got COVID. We were in an open office setting and following the CDC guidelines at the time -- which were totally wrong. 

We shared a big open room. We talked face to face and across desks. All of our preventive measures were focused on sanitizing our desk and washing our hands constantly. When we learned about  “social distancing”, we just sat on opposite sides of the same office.

There were no masks. Remember, the federal government told the public last March and most of April not to wear masks. I still remember seeing Dr. Anthony Fauci gesturing at the sides of his face on TV as he explained why no one but health professionals should wear masks. He said the public was not used to wearing masks, so we would fiddle with them and get coronavirus from touching our faces. Fauci’s demo stayed with me because it was so hard for me to stop myself every time I unconsciously touched my face in those early days.

The CDC also said the public and essential workers should not wear masks because we would be using precious PPE that was needed for frontline health care workers.  

In late April — a year ago — when it started to get clearer in the science that the virus spread from talking, the CDC ordered everyone in masks. I didn’t take it seriously until Harris County (Houston, where I lived) said there would be a $1,000 fine for not wearing one. This is still on my phone:

The county judge I worked for at the time, a Democrat, had to decide whether he would also issue a fine for going unmasked in his county. I argued against it, saying Texans will fight a government order, so it was better to recommend it but let it be a personal responsibility. He agreed. 

But even if you had to wear a mask to go to work or the grocery store, it was hard to find a mask in the beginning. I went to every Walmart and Target and everything that could be used as a facial covering was sold. I was excited when a nearby gas station started selling bandanas for $3.99. I’ve saved the photo on my phone (below) so that I am reminded to not be so annoyed about buying another 50 packs of disposable black masks from Amazon for $6.99. 

I wore the bandana around my neck — color coordinated with my outfits — and pulled it up half heartedly when someone new came to the office.

We had some surgical and N95 masks in the PPE donations at work that people were dropping off for front line workers. The woman who tracked the donations decided that, as essential workers, we should each have one disposable surgical mask. She handed it to me in a sealed ziplock bag to use for emergencies. I still have it in my car console.

I can track when the federal government mask orders started to make sense down in Texas from this email I sent to the task force members on May 22, 2020: 

I mentioned on the call that maybe we need to do new health guidelines that explain the CDC report yesterday that transmission is almost entirely person to person (not touching surfaces.) This would be a good time to put that out to public so we encourage social distancing and masks to prevent the spread during a three day weekend. 

In August 2020, I started working on the pandemic response at the FDA in Washington. Those of us in the Trump administration who worked in the office for the pandemic response as “essential workers” almost never wore masks.

Masks were not required inside the FDA headquarters or the Health and Human Services Department headquarters in DC during the height of the pandemic. We just had to wear them when we entered the building for the temperate check. 

I understand if readers feel that the government was making rules that applied to everyone but themselves. That’s fair. I’ll go into more details in a future post about how Republicans in the health agencies of the government didn’t wear masks so you have all the information.

But if you think not wearing a mask at work was reckless or irresponsible, then know that I don’t know anyone who got COVID at either job - Texas or DC -- while at work. We sat close together, shared offices, ate in one dining room and had meetings around conference tables.

The science shows that masks do some good by decreasing how much virus goes person to person while talking. I’m not disputing that. But it is not easy to get COVID. There is no reason to wear a mask if you’re not near someone who could have the virus or you’ve been vaccinated.

At the year point since masks were mandated, Pres. Biden has wrongly made them into symbols for caring about people who have died from COVID. He wears a mask — sometimes two — inside and outside alone. And the president is fully vaccinated.

On Tuesday, Biden said that it is our “patriotic duty” to wear masks. I disagree. I’ve served my country during the pandemic at the state and federal level. If the president wants to achieve his new goal of getting 70% of the adults in America vaccinated by July 4, he would say the masks come off after the second shot. 

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