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Sorry, Guys. Mike Pence Is Not an Idiot for Not Wearing a Mask at the Mayo Clinic

Vice President Mike Pence, center, visits Dennis Nelson, a patient who survived the coronavirus and was going to give blood, during a tour of the Mayo Clinic Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Rochester, Minn., as he toured the facilities supporting COVID-19 research and treatment. Pence chose not to wear a face mask while touring the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. It's an apparent violation of the world-renowned medical center's policy requiring them. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Sorry guys. The idea that Vice President Mike Pence is an idiot for not wearing a mask during a public appearance at Mayo Clinic is ridiculous. Even though the staff, patients and visitors are wearing masks, it is not necessary for the vice president to do so during a public appearance under those conditions.

First, the president, vice president, and members of the White House staff are routinely tested. Pence and President Trump have disclosed negative tests on a number of occasions when questioned. Second, if you think regular staff and visitors to the White House are not routinely tested before coming in contact with Trump or Pence, you aren’t thinking. 

Finally, most important, to prevent the transmission of disease between two people, you need a single barrier. This is the basis of what are called universal precautions in infection control. As a Registered Nurse, I wore gloves, a gown, and face protection if there was potential for me to come in contact with the blood of a patient. If a respiratory disease was suspected, I wore a mask, eye goggles, and gloves. So did every visitor to the patient. 

The patient did not. In the case of some infections, there were negative pressure rooms to stop the spread of illness through the ventilation system. Some patients were placed on strict isolation, where caretakers and visitors are basically covered from head to toe with personal protective equipment, including hair coverings. 

Visitors were observed putting the equipment on, and often staff helped them remove it correctly to avoid contamination in the process. They were then instructed to wash their hands. This is because, just like there is a very specific way to don sterile personal protective equipment in surgical suites and some types of patient care, there is a very particular way to take it off if it is contaminated. This part of a healthcare worker’s training. It is not common in the general public. 

The opposite was true with patients who were immunocompromised due to chemotherapy or another non-contagious process. The patient would wear a mask and sometimes other PPE depending on their condition. Staff and visitors usually did not. 

Because a single barrier is required between two people, the video of Vice President Pence is completely in line with appropriate precautions. The healthcare workers are more likely to be carriers of the virus. They are placing a barrier between themselves and the vice president. Pence’s hands are basically glued to his sides, avoiding all surfaces and physical contact. He should still wash them vigorously following his visit as a precaution.

More important, the optics of our leaders in masks would be strange. Attorney General Bill Barr told Laura Ingraham he wears a mask in the course of some of his daily activities, but he does not wear one during appearances. Many areas of the country do not have mandatory mask rules and it is not part of the common culture in the U.S. the way it is in some Asian countries. 

For our leaders to cave to media pressure to do so when there is no basic principle of barrier protection being violated would be a mistake. It would only serve to reinforce the panic they are intent on spreading. Our leaders should be endeavoring to do the opposite as we take tentative steps at reopening.