Health and Science

Dr. Scott Gottlieb dismisses inaccurate take on CDC data cited by Trump to question Covid masks

Key Points
  • "Masks are not a panacea, but they're going to afford you a level of protection," Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Friday.
  • The former FDA chief was pushing back against an inaccurate interpretation of a recent CDC study cited by President Trump to question Covid-19 mask effectiveness.
  • "We know it's going to slow down the transmission. It's going to have an impact," Gottlieb insisted.
Trump should promote responsible mask use, says former FDA chief Scott Gottlieb

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former FDA chief in the Trump administration, told CNBC on Friday that masks are definitely effective in slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Gottlieb was pushing back against an inaccurate interpretation of a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC study, published in September, has attracted attention in recent days for one of its additional data points: 85% of the participants who tested positive said they wore masks often or always. For those who tested negative, 89% said they wore masks often or always.

President Donald Trump, among others, have zeroed in on that particular part, to raise questions about the effectiveness of masks in slowing Covid-19 transmission. Trump appeared to do it again at Thursday night's NBC News town hall despite the CDC's recent tweet calling that type of interpretation "incorrect."

On Thursday morning in a Fox Business interview, the president directly cited the data. He said, "You see CDC comes out with a statement that 85% of the people wearing masks catch it," asking "what's that all about?"

In a "Squawk Box" interview, Gottlieb said people should not draw conclusions that masks do not work from that CDC study, which primarily found that eating out at restaurants increases the risk of getting Covid-19. Study participants who tested positive were roughly twice as likely to report dining out compared with those who tested negative.

"Masks are not a panacea, but they're going to afford you a level of protection," Gottlieb said. "In an environment where the alternative is having a raging epidemic that's going to force some kind of economic dislocation, I'd rather try to get everyone in masks and I'd rather try to get them in high-quality masks because we know it's going to slow down the transmission. It's going to have an impact."

In fact, Gottlieb said that one of the biggest drivers of recently spiking coronavirus cases in the U.S. is family gatherings, where people tend to be less vigilant than they are in public.

"I've talked to a number of governors this week and they're doing tracking and tracing, looking at where their outbreaks are occurring. A lot of it [is] occurring in family settings, group gatherings where people feel more comfortable and let their guard down," Gottlieb explained. "People could be going out and wearing a mask when they go shopping, and then having 20 people over their house or 15 people and that's where the infection happens."

On Thursday, New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy told CNBC, "There's a fair amount of community spread" in the state for exactly that reason.

Gottlieb, a physician who led the FDA under Trump from May 2017 to April 2019, also emphasized the difference between homemade cloth masks and those of surgical quality, and the importance of wearing all masks correctly. "If you wear a better quality mask and you wear it more often, you're going to get more protection," he explained, but he acknowledged "they're not foolproof" and primarily prevent infected people from shedding the virus.

For those reasons, Gottlieb said the U.S. should be continuing its efforts to ramp up the availability of personal protective equipment, especially N95 masks, which had seen supply shortages during the pandemic. "Schoolteachers can't get N95 masks. They should be wearing high-quality masks in those settings," he said. "Teachers don't have access to PPE in a lot of schools, high quality PPE, and that's a mistake."

CDC director: Face masks may provide more protection than coronavirus vaccine

Disclosure: Dr. Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic-testing start-up Tempus and biotech company Illumina. He also serves as co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings′ and Royal Caribbean's "Healthy Sail Panel."