'We need to be careful this month' — Dr. Scott Gottlieb says Covid masks still needed for now

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Americans should continue wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus transmission at this point in the pandemic, Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Friday.

In the coming months, he said, that should guidance should hopefully change.

“We need to be careful this month. I don’t think that this is the time to start lifting … the simpler mitigations like wearing masks, things like that,” the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner said on “Squawk Box.”

Gottlieb’s comments came in response to a heated exchanged Thursday between White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci and GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. In a Senate committee hearing, Paul, an ophthalmologist before going into politics, suggested to Fauci that advising people to wear masks even after they have been vaccinated against Covid was “theater.”

“You want to get rid of vaccine hesitancy? Tell them they can quit wearing their mask after they get the vaccine,” Paul said, asserting there was “virtually 0% chance” someone who has been vaccinated could get Covid-19. The senator had Covid a year ago.

Fauci forcefully push back against Paul, saying that “I totally disagree with you.” The nation’s top infectious disease expert stressed that the presence of new virus variants render it important to wear face masks in public, even for those who have been vaccinated.

Gottlieb, who led the FDA from 2017 to 2019 in the Trump administration, said March is a “difficult” month in the pandemic fight. New infections have fallen dramatically since their January peak, but Gottlieb said the downward trajectory has started to plateau even as more Americans receive Covid shots.

“In April and May, things may look much more clear and it may be obvious that we can take our masks off,” said Gottlieb, who serves on the board of Pfizer, which makes one of the two-shot Covid vaccines cleared in the U.S. for emergency use. “Right now, it’s not quite as obvious.”

At the same time, Gottlieb was sympathetic toward Paul’s view on needing to give Americans something to look forward to once they’ve been vaccinated. Paul said to Fauci, “Give them a reward instead of telling them that the nanny state is going to be there for three more years and you’ve got to wear a mask forever.”

Gottlieb said he’s not sure any public-health experts, including Fauci, are suggesting people will have to wear masks for eternity. But, Gottlieb stressed, “There needs to be light at the end of the tunnel.”

“I think we need to recognize that as the population gets vaccinated and the overall vulnerability of the population decreases, we’re going to be able to take more risk and that includes going out without masks and doing things in congregate settings,” the ex-FDA chief said.

Nearly 23% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A little over 12% of the population has been fully vaccinated. Pfizer and Moderna‘s vaccines require two doses for full protection, while Johnson & Johnson‘s recently approved vaccine is a single dose.

A number of states have recently been lifting or easing pandemic-era restrictions on businesses in recent weeks. Some governors, such as Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, both Republicans, also have ditched their state’s respective mask mandates.

While Gottlieb has previously said mask requirements should be the last Covid mitigation measure to go, the physician said he sees a scenario in the not-so-distant future where Americans will not need them in public.

“If infection levels get low this summer, which I believe they will, and we fully vaccinated 50% or 60%of the adult population, we’re not going to be wearing masks on the beach on July 4th. We’re not going to be wearing masks, probably, in indoor settings unless we want to,” Gottlieb said.

As fall and winter rolls around, bringing colder weather, coronavirus cases may increase, Gottlieb said, adding that “we may re-implement some of the mitigation.” However, he said, “I think a lot of people will still be wearing masks, though, probably including me if I travel this winter.”

Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic testing start-up Tempus, health-care tech company Aetion and biotech company Illumina. He also serves as co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings’ and Royal Caribbean’s “Healthy Sail Panel.”

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