In March 2020, the White House prepared to send postcards with Covid-19-related public health guidelines to households across the United States. But as the country grappled with a nationwide shortage of masks — and a White House that would soon make mask-wearing a dangerously politicized exercise — guidelines about face coverings were ultimately omitted from the final mailer, according to records obtained by American Oversight.
A White House staff secretary circulated an email on March 14, 2020, asking for feedback on an attached “draft mass-mailing postcard from the President with information on how to protect yourself from COVID-19 and what to do if you have symptoms.” The email requested feedback by 7 p.m. that evening and was sent to Anthony Fauci, Deborah Birx, and several top administration and White House officials, including Jared Kushner, Katie Miller, Hope Hicks, and Stephanie Grisham.
The draft postcard included multiple instructions on preventing the spread of Covid-19, such as to wash and sanitize hands frequently, disinfect surfaces, maintain social distance, limit children’s exposure to other children, and “wear a mask if you have any respiratory symptoms to protect your household.”
In late February and early March of 2020, the federal government advised only health care workers to wear masks. Health officials, including then-Surgeon General Jerome Adams and then-CDC Director Robert Redfield, warned healthy members of the general public that masks were not effective against the coronavirus and that panic-buying would worsen shortages, and even claimed that using them improperly could increase the risk of contracting Covid-19. On March 10, a severe shortage of N95 respirators led the CDC to downgrade its guidance on personal protective equipment for health care workers and deem less-effective surgical masks an “acceptable alternative.”
A follow-up email from the staff secretary detailed feedback from staff, including a comment about whether the mask guidance would be confusing given the White House’s messaging regarding masks. “Are we being consistent with the ‘wear mask’ message?” the comment reads. “We (and [White House Coronavirus Task Force] members) have been saying only medical professionals should wear masks, so just want to be sure we’re being consistent.”
The final version of the postcard did not include the guidance on mask-wearing. The postcard was delivered to households throughout the country beginning March 21, sparking criticism for their prominent display of President Trump’s name during an election year.
During the early weeks of the pandemic in the United States, the Trump administration’s inconsistent messaging and inadequate handling of the looming public health crisis led to mistrust and confusion, including regarding mask-wearing. It was not until April 2020 that health officials recommended that all individuals wear face masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Public records previously obtained by American Oversight indicate that government officials knew about the importance of mask wearing by late March. A March 31 email exchange between Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger, who served on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, praised a public service announcement from the Czech Republic about the importance of masks.
Over the following months, however, Trump downplayed the effectiveness of face coverings and quickly politicized mask-wearing, even as officials close to the president internally acknowledged their effectiveness. In a May 2020 email to colleagues, White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner shared information from “a good source” who said, “Masks really work, and are the silver bullet in Asia,” and cited statistics from Taiwan showing the transmission reduction resulting from wearing masks. Other records obtained by American Oversight last year revealed that the U.S. Postal Service had a plan to mail masks to every U.S. household in April 2020; the Washington Post reported that the plan was scrapped by the White House.
Opposition to mask-wearing in the early months of the pandemic worsened the impacts of Covid-19 across the country. Multiple studies have shown that masks are effective in helping prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and one paper published early this year found that if masks had been nationally mandated for employees early in the pandemic, there could have been up to 47 percent fewer deaths by the end of May 2020.
The Department of the Treasury released the emails in response to American Oversight’s Freedom of Information Act litigation for the pandemic-related communications that top officials, including Secretary Steven Mnuchin, had with private interests as well as with officials like Kushner and Ivanka Trump. The records also indicated a planned March 15 call with Trump, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, and grocery store executives, as well as a March 17 meeting between Trump and tourism industry executives.
For more on American Oversight’s investigation into the Trump administration’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis as well as its contacts with the private sector during the early months of the pandemic, visit our Covid-19 Oversight Hub.
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