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Debate between masks and vaccines is a false choice, UMN expert says

During a back-and-forth over the timeline of a vaccine for COVID-19, President Trump and the CDC Director appeared to take different sides when it comes to masks.

WASHINGTON, D.C., USA — A public disagreement between President Trump and the director of the CDC, appears to be pitting masks against vaccines in the fight against COVID-19, and it's a troubling sign for some in the medical community.

During a back-and-forth over the timeline of a vaccine for COVID-19, President Trump and CDC Director Robert Redfield also appeared to take different sides when it comes to the effectiveness of masks.

CDC director Robert Redfield made headlines after comparing masks to vaccines currently being studied.

"We have clear scientific evidence they work and they are our best defense," Dr. Redfield said during a Senate committee hearing. "I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine, because the immunogenicity may be 70% and if I don't get an immune response, the vaccine is not going to protect me. This face mask will."

Hours later, President Trump responded.

"No, it's not more effective than a vaccine," Trump said. "I think there are a lot of problems with masks. The vaccine is much more effective than the masks."

Dr. Tim Schacker, Vice Dean of Research for the University of Minnesota Medical School says it's hard to see an important medical issue debated in the political arena.

"We are operating in a data-free zone here," Dr. Schacker said. "I mean, we don't know. We just don't know. There are not data."

Schacker says data does show that masks are currently one of the helpful tools available.

"They are instrumental in slowing the spread of SARS COV-2 through the community," he said. "And we've got masks, but right now we don't have vaccines."

He says it's simply too early to compare the two, because research into masks it still emerging and there isn't even a vaccine ready yet.

"What we don't know is, how protective is the vaccine? That's the real test and that's what the Phase III studies are doing right now," he said. "When those studies are concluded we'll have a number, it prevented 70% or it was 70% effective, or whatever that number is."

Even when that day comes, Dr. Schacker says it's unhelpful to pit masks and vaccines against each other. Especially because both need public support to be effective.

"I think that's a huge concern," Schacker said. "Look, if we're trying to achieve herd immunity here, to get this virus out of the community it's going to be tough if a significant portion of people say, 'I'm not going to have that vaccine.' I worry that the political back and forth that's going on right now might be making it more difficult to achieve public health goals."

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