NIH Director Baffled by Maskless Rally Attendees: 'Imagine You Were an Alien ... and You Saw That'

Dr. Francis Collins expressed displeasure over the fact that mask-wearing has become a political issue

U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins
Dr. Francis Collins. Photo: CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Shutterstock

If aliens were to suddenly land in the U.S., only to find the country in the midst of a pandemic — what would they think of the many people shunning masks?

That's what Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, asked himself during a CNN town hall on the novel coronavirus, which aired Thursday and was hosted by Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

"Imagine you were an alien who landed on planet Earth and you saw that our planet was afflicted by an infectious disease and that masks were an effective way to prevent the spread," said Collins. "And yet when you went around, you saw some people not wearing them and some people wearing them, and you tried to figure out why — and it turned out it was their political party."

Collins continued: "You would scratch your head and think, 'This is just not a planet that has much promise for the future if something that is so straightforward can somehow get twisted into decision-making that really makes no sense.' So, as a scientist I'm pretty puzzled and rather disheartened.”

The comments came after Gupta asked Collins about a Michigan rally for the Trump campaign — also held Thursday and attended by thousands of people crowded together and not wearing masks in an outdoor airplane hangar.

"For months, health officials on the coronavirus task force have been urging people not have masked gatherings," Gupta asked. "What do you think when you see these images of an event like this?"

"It just deeply puzzles me, Sanjay," Collins replied. "How did we get here?"

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended face coverings since April, citing the fact that the virus is spread through particles in the air, some have refused to wear them — including, at many points, President Donald Trump himself.

Even after the CDC announced its recommendations, Trump, 74, initially said he wouldn't be wearing one.

“This is voluntary,” he said in April. “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.”

Eventually, he seemed to come around on masks — telling Fox News in July that he would "absolutely" wear one if he were in a "tight situation with people." He has worn a mask during some events but has also been seen at well-attended gatherings not wearing a mask.

In July, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield called face masks "one of the most powerful weapons you could ask for" in fighting the virus. Research has found that cloth face masks help prevent the spread of the virus, which has killed more than 190,000 Americans and sickened more than 6 million.

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks to supporters in Mankato, Minnesota. C-span

The president's actions seem to have trickled down to many of his supporters, some of whom were interviewed about their lack of masks at the Michigan rally on Thursday.

"It's my prerogative [to wear one,]" one supporter told CNN. "Because there's no COVID," said another, adding, "It's a fake pandemic, created to destroy the United States of America."

As CNN's Kaitlan Collins noted, when an announcer urged rally attendees to put their masks on, the crowd booed.

Though Trump's opinion of masks has varied, he has been vocal about the need for a vaccine to protect against the virus, going so far as to insinuate that one will be available before Election Day. “We’re going to have a vaccine very soon, maybe even before a very special date," Trump told reporters earlier this week. "You know what date I’m talking about."

When asked about a timeline for a COVID-19 vaccine during the CNN town hall, Collins said trials are moving forward "at a pace that the world has never seen" but "not in a fashion that allows cutting-corners with safety."

He added that it is "very unlikely" that a vaccine would be rolled out by early November.

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