Was Rand Paul ‘Right’ All Along About the CDC Mask Mandate?

The U.S. senator rejoiced at revised guidelines allowing fully vaccinated people to relax mask wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Claim

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul was right about unmasking before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on May 13, 2021, that fully vaccinated people no longer need to mask in public or private.

Rating

What's True

In March 2021, Paul clashed with Dr. Anthony Fauci, saying he could go unmasked if he was fully vaccinated and wearing masks after vaccinations was “theater.” Two months later, on May 13, 2021, the CDC announced that fully vaccinated people can unmask in most spaces, prompting Paul to claim he had been “right.” However...

What's False

Paul’s claims don’t take into account the CDC’s ongoing investigations into new COVID-19 variants. Even though the CDC guidelines announced in May 2021 concurred with Paul's March claims, and Fauci had said in March there was “credence” to Paul's argument, Fauci also said that the existence of variants meant masking should still be taken seriously.

Context

Paul has been critical of masks since early 2020, in line with many Republican colleagues who have mocked mask wearing. After recovering from COVID-19 in summer 2020, Paul claimed he could go unmasked because he had “immunity.” At that time, however, experts were still investigating the duration of immunity and the possibility of reinfection, and did not have enough information to confirm Paul’s claims.

Origin

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As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced new guidelines relaxing mask requirements for people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 on May 13, 2021, a number of Republicans who had been mask critics celebrated.

Among them was U.S Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, whose official Facebook page posted, “I was right,” along with a link to a document calling for the firing of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to U.S. President Joe Biden. 

The updated CDC guidelines said, “fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance in any setting, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.” They added that people are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose in a two-dose series, or two weeks after their only dose in a one-dose series. 

Paul had long been engaged in a war of words with Fauci over when it was necessary to wear a mask. During a Senate hearing in March 2020, Paul asked Fauci about the need to wear masks once people had been vaccinated or had been infected and developed immunity. Paul said, “You’re telling everyone to wear a mask. If we’re not spreading the infection, isn’t it just theater? You have the vaccine and you’re wearing two masks, isn’t that theater?”

Fauci said — referring to the unmutated strain of COVID-19 as “wild type” — “I agree with you, that you very likely would have protection from wild type for at least six months if you’re infected but we in our country […] now have variants that are circulating.” He emphasized that the existence of COVID-19 variants meant that wearing masks was still important. 

Their full debate can be seen here: 

The CDC added that there are numerous caveats to their mid-May announcement, “How long vaccine protection lasts and how much vaccines protect against emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants are still under investigation.” They also said that people should still wear masks in accordance with state, workplace, and local businesses’ guidelines. 

On March 19, Fauci said to CBS News after the hearing that Paul was “dead wrong” about masks. “Senator Paul has this message that we don’t need masks, which goes against just about everything we know about how to prevent spread of the virus,” he said. 

Even though the revised CDC guidelines appear to concur in large part with what Paul was stating back in March 2021, and indeed what he has maintained since 2020 when he himself contracted the virus, it is not because he was “right” all along. Paul, like numerous other Republicans, has been critical of masks over time. 

In the summer of 2020, as Paul refused to wear a mask after his recovery, medical professionals and experts, including Fauci, said that the duration of immunity after a COVID-19 infection was unknown even though some type of immunity was probably likely. In March 2021, even as Fauci acknowledged that Paul’s arguments have “clear-cut credence” to them, and recovered people have protection for at least six months, he still urged the wearing of masks because of the prevalence of COVID-19 variants. 

It should be noted that when Paul was discouraging masking in March 2021, the death rate from COVID-19 cases across the U.S. was 1,500 per day, even as there was a drop in new infections. Also, fewer people were fully vaccinated then, so his claims about not wearing masks carried very different implications at that time. 

Current CDC guidelines also account for COVID-19 variants and the unknowns surrounding them, even though the CDC still encourages fully vaccinated people to be unmasked. Fauci reiterated the guidelines in May, and said, “If you are going into a completely crowded situation where people are essentially falling all over each other, then you wear a mask.” 

Paul’s claim of being “right” today oversimplifies the evolving nature of the COVID-19 virus, disregards the likely irresponsible nature of making this claim back when fewer people were vaccinated, and only now happens to match up with developing scientific information. As such, we rate this claim a “Mixture.”