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Ex-Trump FDA chief says requiring coronavirus masks is not 'denying people their liberty'

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Requiring people to wear a a mask in a communal setting is not “denying people their liberty,” President Donald Trump’s former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Friday.

Gottlieb served as the FDA chief under Trump from May, 2017 to April, 2019. His comments come after Trump said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal published Thursday that some Americans might wear masks to “signal disapproval of him.”

Infectious disease specialists and health officials have repeatedly touted the role of masks in slowing the spread of the coronavirus, which can infect people from respiratory droplets spewed from the mouth and nose.

“I don’t think this is a political issue,” Gottlieb said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “Universal masking is one of the simplest interventions that we can take that could probably reduce the odds that we have another epidemic.”

Several studies in recent weeks have indicated that masks help to prevent infection and slow the overall spread of the virus. Health officials have increasingly adopted mask recommendations or requirements in the effort to slow the spread. Earlier this month, the World Health Organization reversed its stance on masks, saying that the general public should wear face coverings. 

“There’s very few things that we can do to try to prevent wider spread and another epidemic heading into the fall. This is one of them,” Gottlieb said. “I don’t think asking them to wear a mask when they go into congregate areas is denying people their liberty and their right to choose.”

Several governors updated their stances on masks this week as new infections surged mostly across the American South and West. California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday issued a statewide order requiring people to wear face coverings in most indoor settings and outdoors when physical distancing is not feasible. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Wednesday changed policy to allow city and local officials to set their own masking requirements. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has allowed some cities such as Austin to require masks under threat of a fine for not complying.

However, mask wearing remains a contentious issue in the U.S. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts told county governments earlier this week that he would withhold federal coronavirus relief funds if they required masks in local government offices, the Omaha World-Herald first reported.

“I think you’re going to see people start to change their position on this,” Gottlieb said, adding that requiring people wear a mask is less restrictive than keeping people home from work. “We need to reach for the least intrusive things that we can do. This is one of them.”

‘Preserving life’

Gottlieb also pointed to something of a silver lining as infections continue to increase across the country. While more people are becoming infected with the virus, a smaller portion are becoming severely sick and dying, Gottlieb said.

“What we’re seeing actually, and I’m going to put the data out later today, is the hospitalization rate as a percentage of the total cases is actually going down and it looks like the death rate is as well,” he said. “And there’s probably a number of reasons for that.”

That’s likely an indication that at-risk people, including the elderly and those with underlying conditions, are doing a better job of protecting themselves, which means staying home, physically distancing from others and wearing masks, Gottlieb said. He added that more people testing positive are younger and healthier people, who are not hospitalized and don’t die from Covid-19 at the same rate as older people. 

 “We’re also doing a better job of preserving life in the hospital, and we’ve talked about that before, but it’s really going to make a meaningful difference heading into the fall,” he said. “I think you’re going to see death rates come down as long as we can protect the health care system and it doesn’t become overwhelmed in these cities.”

Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic-testing start-up Tempus and biotech company Illumina.

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