In a heated exchange in the Senate on Thursday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) challenged Dr. Anthony Fauci on his understanding of whether people can get reinfected with COVID-19, telling the nation’s top infectious disease expert that wearing two masks is “just theater.”
Fauci was quick to give a lesson on the dangers of different coronavirus strains.
“If you’ve had the vaccine and you’re wearing two masks, isn’t that theater?” Paul asked Fauci, who has been vaccinated and has advised people to wear two masks to better prevent the spread of the virus. Paul and Fauci have previously faced off in the Senate.
“Here we go again with the theater. Let’s get down to the facts,” Fauci said before breaking down the potential risks that mutated versions of the virus can have on all people ― including those who have already been vaccinated or infected with the original virus strain of SARS-CoV-2, which Fauci referred to as the “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,” Fauci said. “But we, in our country, now have variants that are circulating.”
“When you talk about reinfection, and you don’t key in the concept of variants, that’s an entirely different ball game, that’s a good reason for a mask,” he added. He went on to cite a study out of South Africa that found people were becoming reinfected after being exposed to one of these new variants.
“It was as if they had never been infected before,” he explained. “They had no protection.”
Paul challenged the current risk of variants in the U.S., however, arguing that there have been no deaths among people being reinfected.
Fauci responded that there have been no deaths from reinfection in the U.S. because there isn’t a prevalent variant in the country, though one is gaining ground.
Paul accused Fauci of basing his view on conjecture and then circled back to his original expressed belief ― that Fauci did not need to wear a mask.
“You’ve been vaccinated and you parade around in two masks for show. You can’t get it again. There’s virtually zero percent chance you’re going to get it,” Paul told Fauci, while pushing him to “reward” vaccinated people by telling them they don’t have to wear a mask.
“Let me just state for the record: Masks are not theater,” Fauci said. “Masks are protective.”
Paul, a physician and once self-certified ophthalmologist, has long argued that people who have contracted the coronavirus are immune to it and do not need to get vaccinated — which goes against guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because Paul tested positive for the virus early on in the pandemic, he has refused to wear a mask in the Capitol and has even advised others like him to “throw your mask away.”
The COVID-19 variants carry different known consequences, according to the CDC. One is able to spread more quickly in human cells; one is associated with an increased risk of death; one is able to evade detection in specific viral diagnostic tests; and another is able to evade natural or vaccine-induced immunity.
As of Tuesday, the most common variant in the U.S. was the B.1.1.7 strain, which originated in the U.K. There have been more than 4,600 reported cases of it in the U.S., according to the CDC. This variant is believed to lead to more severe cases, based on hospitalizations and case fatality rates.
While answering a follow-up question from Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Fauci explained that those who have been vaccinated “get a certain level of antibody that’s specific to a particular viral strain.” But he said that doesn’t necessarily mean you are protected against a different variant.
“You have some spillover immunity, to be sure, but you diminish by anywhere from two- to eightfold, the protection,” he said.
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