In April, the United States Postal Service drafted a press release to announce that it would deliver, for free, face masks to every household in the country. It was a healthcare effort on a massive scale – though, admittedly, one the USPS has to deliver on every day – “beginning in areas which [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] has identified as experiencing high transmission rates of COVID-19 and to workers providing essential services throughout the nation during this pandemic.” In partnership with the White House Coronavirus Task Force and a “Consortium of Textile Manufacturers,” the project would have been a massive lifeline for people struggling to source masks and for essential workers who need more frequent mask replacements.
But it never happened.
The Washington Post reports that it was DHHS that came up with the idea to send five reusable masks to every residential address in the country. Citing an unnamed administration official, the Post reports, “There was concern from some in the White House Domestic Policy Council and the office of the vice president that households receiving masks might create concern or panic.”
Without knowing exactly when the plan was hatched and when it was spiked, we do know that it was around April. We also have some insight into Trump’s thoughts at the time because he was participating in a series of interviews with Bob Woodward, the author of the Trump administration expose Fear, who was working on a follow-up book.
On March 19, Trump told Woodward that there were “startling facts” about COVID-19, particularly that it affected people of all ages and not just older people as was originally believed. But Trump said he wanted to downplay the dangers: “I still like play it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
On April 13, Trump told Woodward that COVID-19 “is a killer if it gets you. If you’re the wrong person, you don’t have a chance.” But just four days later, Trump called for allies to “LIBERATE” states that had imposed restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus. It was presumably sometime around here that the administration killed the DHHS-USPS mask delivery program, aware that it would create the impression that the virus was a real risk, an impression that – although it was what the White House believed – went against what the president had been saying publicly.
“We don’t want to run around screaming, shouting, oh, look at this, look at this. We have to show leadership. And leadership is all about confidence.”President Trump, in the Woodward tapes, explaining why he lied about the risks of COVID-19
On May 5, Link, the USPS’ employee news site, posted a story about how COVID-19 was similar to the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. The piece noted that masks and social distancing had been part of the effort to combat that pandemic (known as the ‘Spanish flu,’ although it originated in the U.S.) and that social distancing in particular was essential. The next day, the Trump administration announced it would shut down the White House Coronavirus Task Force, with Vice President Mike Pence calling for social distancing to continue but also saying that it was time to resume business as usual around the country.
That day, May 6, was the peak of the U.S. deaths from COVID-19. Since that day, when 2,701 people in the U.S. died from the virus, no single day total has even come close to 2,000 deaths. Still, the total death count has climbed steadily, with more than 198,000 U.S. deaths from the virus. Earlier this month, Johns Hopkins University reported that the COVID-19 death count was notable: “Looking at 2020 since March, the raw number of excess deaths is 200,000 more people than a normal year. When we try to understand that, COVID-19 is the most rational and likely explanation.”
Could the USPS mask delivery program have reduced the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths over the summer? There’s no way to know for certain. So-called super-spreader events, which have been responsible for many outbreaks around the country, are usually indoor events without social distancing or mask wearing, but are the participants not wearing masks because they don’t have access to them or is it because they simply don’t want to wear masks? On the other hand, many essential workers said, especially around the time this program was pitched, that they were concerned about a lack of masks on customers as well as, in some cases, that they themselves weren’t provided masks to wear. Providing masks to every household would have made it so stores felt more comfortable requiring masks – after all, you definitely have some – and so employees had masks to wear and weren’t reliant on companies that the U.S. was reluctant to force to provide masks to their employees.