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DeSantis ad on Fauci ‘flip-flops’ leaves out reasons for guidance changes

PolitiFact | The edited clips of Fauci speaking leave out dates and the full context of Fauci’s words
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington on Dec. 1, 2021.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington on Dec. 1, 2021. [ SUSAN WALSH | AP ]
Published Feb. 9|Updated Feb. 9

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has long railed against COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, pushing back against government measures like mask and vaccine mandates that aimed to control the spread of infection.

DeSantis’ campaign took aim at Dr. Anthony Fauci in a new ad that accused the White House’s chief health adviser of “flip-flopping.”

The ad shows shortened clips of the nation’s top infectious disease expert making a series of back-to-back statements, each seemingly in opposition with the one prior:

  • “People should not be walking around with masks.” “Masks work.”
  • “Fully vaccinated, you are protected and you do not need to wear a mask.” “If you are vaccinated, you should still wear a mask.”
  • “You really better be very careful before you bring the children back.” “The default position should be to try as best as possible to keep the children in school.”
  • “Right now, at this moment, there is no need to change anything that you’re doing on a day by day basis.” “I would like to see a dramatic diminution of the personal interaction that we see.”

It ends with the words on a screen in all caps: “Dr. Fauci, he flips, he flops. But he can’t stop freedom in Florida.” Then the screen fades to show a pair of red flip flops on a beach and the words, “Fauci can pound sand.”

Guidance surrounding the pandemic has changed since the SARS-CoV-2 virus emerged as a global health threat in late 2019 and early 2020. But DeSantis’ ad omits a lot of context, including about what was and wasn’t known about the new virus at the time Fauci made these statements. It also selectively edits out key words and caveats, giving viewers a misleading impression about what Fauci actually said.

Through Helen Aguirre Ferré, executive director of the Republican Party of Florida, DeSantis’ campaign stood by its ad, citing what it called Fauci’s “nonsensical policies and endless contradictions.”

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the agency Fauci heads, said public health recommendations have evolved as knowledge about the disease has evolved: “The public health and scientific communities have been faced with an unprecedented and evolving pandemic event and have made recommendations in ‘real time’ according to the best scientific data available at that time.”

A close look at each of the statements shows Fauci was more nuanced and specific in his guidance than the selective editing in this ad would suggest. Here’s a look at each of the Fauci statements used in the ad, with context:

On wearing masks

Ad: “People should not be walking around with masks.”

Context: This shortened clip of Fauci was from a March 8, 2020, interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” three days before the World Health Organization designated the novel coronavirus a global pandemic. At the time, there was a concern about a shortage of personal protective equipment, called PPE, for health care providers. Officials at the time did not know that the virus could be transmitted by asymptomatic people. The CDC changed its guidance a month later, urging Americans to wear cloth face coverings. Fauci explained the change in mask guidance in an interview with PolitiFact on May 14, 2021.

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Fauci’s full comment: “The masks are important for someone who’s infected to prevent them from infecting someone else. Now when you see people and look at the films in China or South Korea, whatever, everybody’s wearing a mask … right now in the United States, people should not be walking around with masks.”

Ad: “Masks work.”

Context: This clip shows two words of a much longer answer Fauci gave in a June 12, 2020, interview with The Street. He also said masks weren’t 100 percent effective and went on to discuss the need for physical separation.

Fauci’s full comment: “Masks are not 100 percent protective. However, they certainly are better than not wearing a mask. Both to prevent you, if you happen to be a person who may feel well, but has an asymptomatic infection that you don’t even know about, to prevent you from infecting someone else. But also, it can protect to a certain degree, not a hundred percent, in protecting you from getting infected from someone who, either is breathing, or coughing, or sneezing, or singing or whatever it is, in which the droplets or the aerosols go out. So masks work.”

Ad: “Fully vaccinated, you are protected and you do not need to wear a mask.”

Context: The CDC had changed its guidance on masks in May 2021, saying that data showed it was safe for fully vaccinated people to stop wearing masks in most indoor or outdoor settings. In this June 29, 2021, clip from an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt, Fauci was responding to concerns about the surge in delta variant cases and said that the CDC guidance on masks stood “for now.”

Fauci’s full comment: “We know from experience now that the vaccines that we’re using in this country do very well against the delta variant. You have to take that variant seriously. It’s nothing to just pooh-pooh, because it spreads more rapidly than the original virus, and it can cause more serious disease. But for now, the CDC recommendations stand, that if in fact you are vaccinated ... fully vaccinated, you are protected and you do not need to wear a mask, outdoors or indoors.”

Ad: “If you are vaccinated, you should still wear a mask.”

Context: This clip from a July 27, 2021, interview on PBS was edited to leave out that Fauci was referring to wearing a mask indoors. It also left out the important context that the CDC’s mask guidance had changed in response to new data showing that vaccinated people with breakthrough infections could transmit the more highly contagious delta variant to others.

Fauci’s full comment: “So, when you have vaccinated people who might have a breakthrough infection, and we know now as the fact, as a scientific fact, that they can transmit the virus to an uninfected person, it’s for that reason that the CDC made the change in recommendation, and did, just as you correctly stated, namely, that, if you are vaccinated, if you are (in) an indoor setting, you should still wear a mask.”

On opening schools

Ad: “You really better be very careful before you bring the children back.”

Context: This clip is from Sept. 8, 2020, on “PBS NewsHour.” Fauci was speaking about K-12 schools and the rate of infection in the local community. He referred to green, yellow and red zones and cautioned about bringing students back too soon in communities in red zones.

Fauci’s full comment: “And then finally, if you’re in the red zone, you really better be very careful before you bring the children back because you don’t want to create a situation where you have a hyper-spreading event, as you might have in the school.”

Ad: “The default position should be to try as best as possible to keep the children in school.”

Context: This clip from Nov. 29, 2020, on ABC News, edits out the words “within reason” that Fauci said after “as best as possible.” He was responding to a question in the context of New York schools closing and said there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to closures.

Fauci’s full comment: “Obviously, you don’t have one size fits all. But as I said in the past and as you accurately quoted me, the default position should be to try as best as possible within reason to keep the children in school, or to get them back to school. The best way to ensure the safety of the children in school is to get the community level of spread low. So, if you mitigate the things that you know are causing spread in a very, very profound way, in a robust way, if you bring that down, you will then indirectly and ultimately protect the children in the school because the community level is determined how things go across the board.”

On changing daily life during the pandemic

Ad: “Right now, at this moment, there is no need to change anything that you’re doing on a day-by-day basis.”

Context: This comment on Feb. 29, 2020, from NBC’s “Today” show came after Fauci was asked if people needed to alter their daily lives because of the virus. Fauci said no, but the clip leaves out the context that he warned that this was subject to change if people started to see community spread.

Fauci’s full comment: “No, right now, at this moment, there is no need to change anything that you’re doing on a day-by-day basis. Right now, the risk is still low, but this could change. I’ve said that many times, even on this program. You’ve got to watch out because although the risk is low now, you don’t need to change anything you’re doing. When you start to see community spread, this could change, and force you to become much more attentive to doing things that would protect you from spread.”

Ad: “I would like to see a dramatic diminution of the personal interaction that we see.”

Context: This March 15, 2020, clip from CNN is deceptively edited mid-sentence to make it seem Fauci was speaking broadly about personal interactions, when in reality he was answering a question from host Brianna Keilar about young people crowding into bars and restaurants, and whether he would like to see a national lockdown. He went on to say that young people were not immune to the virus, and that even if they were less likely to get seriously ill, they could transmit the virus to a more vulnerable person.

Fauci’s full comment: “Well, I would like to see a dramatic diminution of the personal interaction that we see in restaurants and in bars. Whatever it takes to do that, that’s what I’d like to see.”

On vaccine availability

Ad: “So let me clarify that because there was a little bit of a misunderstanding.”

Context: Fauci said this Jan. 24, 2021, on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” He was trying to clear up some confusion over Biden’s promise to get 100 million vaccine doses into the arms of Americans in his first 100 days as president. That’s because Fauci had misspoken in an earlier interview, saying there would be 100 million Americans fully vaccinated in 100 days. Asked about the conflicting statements on “Face the Nation,” he said there was a misunderstanding.

Fauci’s full comment: “Yes, so let me clarify that, because there was a little bit of a misunderstanding. What we’re talking about is 100 million shots in individuals. So, a shot — as in other words, when you get down to, let’s say, a certain part of the 100 days, at the end of 100 days, you’re going to have some people who will have gotten both shots and some will still be on their first shots. What the president is saying (is) 100 million shots in the arms of people within 100 days.”

Our ruling

A new ad for DeSantis accuses Fauci of ‘flip-flopping’ on guidance for mask wearing, school closures and COVID-19 precautions.

The ad splices together various clips of Fauci speaking, but selectively omits key context, words and caveats that would explain the changes in guidance and provide a more accurate picture of his position. These omissions and edits fundamentally alter the story that is being told.

When Fauci said people did not need to walk around in masks, it was before scientists knew COVID-19 could be spread asymptomatically. When he said masks work, he indicated they do not work 100% but can help stem infection spread. When he said that fully vaccinated people should wear masks, he was talking about how to behave safely indoors after new data showed vaccinated people with breakthrough infections could transmit the highly contagious delta variant. When he said children should be kept home, his comments were specific to areas where there was high transmission early in the pandemic, before vaccines. When he said people didn’t need to change their behavior, it was in February 2020 when U.S. cases were few, but he added the caveat that that guidance could change. When he advised personal interaction should be diminished, it was March 2020, and he was speaking specifically of young people crowding into bars and restaurants.

The ad contains an element of truth in that it does quote words that came out of Fauci’s mouth. But these statements came at different points in the pandemic as scientists understood more about COVID-19. The video is edited in such a way as to mislead by ignoring critical facts and cutting out words that would give a different impression.

We rate this claim Mostly False.

• • •

How to get tested

Tampa Bay: The Times can help you find the free, public COVID-19 testing sites in Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties.

Florida: The Department of Health has a website that lists testing sites in the state. Some information may be out of date.

The U.S.: The Department of Health and Human Services has a website that can help you find a testing site.

• • •

How to get vaccinated

The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:

Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your ZIP code.

More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.

Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.

TTY: 888-720-7489

Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.

• • •

More coronavirus coverage

OMICRON VARIANT: Omicron changed what we know about COVID. Here’s the latest on how the infectious COVID-19 variant affects masks, vaccines, boosters and quarantining.

KIDS AND VACCINES: Got questions about vaccinating your kid? Here are some answers.

BOOSTER SHOTS: Confused about which COVID booster to get? This guide will help.

BOOSTER QUESTIONS: Are there side effects? Why do I need it? Here’s the answers to your questions.

PROTECTING SENIORS: Here’s how seniors can stay safe from the virus.

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