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The politicization of mask wearing during the pandemic may have led to the deaths of "tens of thousands" of Americans because of increased spread of COVID-19, National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins tells "Axios on HBO."

What they're saying: "The evidence was pretty compelling by last March or April that uniform wearing of masks would reduce transmission of this disease. And yet, with a variety of messages through a variety of sources, mask wearing became a statement about your political party or an invasion of your personal freedom."

  • "A mask is nothing more than a life-saving medical device, and yet it got categorized in all sorts of other ways that were not factual, not scientific, and frankly dangerous. And I think you could make a case that tens of thousands of people died as a result."

In response to a question about former President Trump's resistance to mask-wearing, Collins said "2020 was a pretty difficult year."

  • "It's so disappointing that such behaviors could be chosen — intentionally by people who have access to real public health information and yet would decide not to put on the mask in order to make some other kind of statement. Perhaps with some sense that they're immune from the consequences."

By the numbers: Almost two thirds of Americans in a July Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index survey said they wore a mask whenever they left the house, but a partisan split persisted.

  • 95% of Democrats said they wear a mask some or all of the time outside the house, compared with 74% of Republicans.

The bottom line: "There is way too much politics in things where it doesn't belong," Collins said.

Go deeper

Feb 21, 2021 - Health

Fauci: Americans wearing masks in 2022 is "possible"

Americans wearing face masks in 2022 is "possible," NIAID director Anthony Fauci told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday.

Why it matters: Wearing masks will likely be part of our new normal for longer than we think, even as vaccinations ramp up across the U.S. The CDC advises that you should still wear a mask, avoid crowds and wash your hands often after receiving two doses of a coronavirus vaccine.

Updated Feb 22, 2021 - Health

Fauci boss gives Trump administration credit on Operation Warp Speed

National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins tells "Axios on HBO" that the Trump administration deserves credit for the "breathtaking" speed of COVID vaccine development.

The big picture: The fact that it "got done in 11 months from when we first knew about this virus is at least five years faster than it's ever been before before," Collins said.

Updated 12 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios