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NIH director: Mask politicalization may have cost 'tens of thousands' of lives in US

The director for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) said in a new interview that statements made by former President TrumpDonald TrumpNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors McCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 MORE and other Republicans who dismissed mask wearing during the coronavirus pandemic may have cost tens of thousands of lives. 

"The evidence was pretty compelling by last March or April that uniform wearing of masks would reduce transmission of this disease," Francis Collins told Axios. "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."

Collins also said that pleas from national public health officials like himself to commit to face coverings while in public "got categorized in all sorts of other ways that were not factual" by politicians, despite scientific proof showing that mass mask wearing helps slow the spread of the coronavirus

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Collins called this spinning of scientific information for political gain "dangerous." 

"And I think you could make a case that tens of thousands of people died as a result," he said.

The NIH director, who often appeared on television during the pandemic in its early stages to share updated government coronavirus research and advocate for public health measures based on that data, was pressed about political messaging surrounding his agency's efforts during an election year. 

In response, 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," he said. "Perhaps with some sense that they're immune from the consequences."

Trump downplayed the efficacy of masks during the pandemic's early months, before eventually supporting the push from members of the White House coronavirus task force. Some Republican members of Congress have questioned whether masks work against the virus. 

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During a presidential debate in October, Trump mocked then-presidential candidate Joe BidenJoe BidenNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors Biden celebrates vaccine approval but warns 'current improvement could reverse' MORE for "wearing the biggest mask you've ever seen." 

Biden on his first full day in office implemented a nationwide mask mandate for all citizens while riding trains, airplanes and or gathering in other public spaces.