Retired Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, who served as the personal physician to Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, said Wednesday that he considers wearing a mask to be a "personal choice," even as public health experts implore Americans to use them to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Jackson made the comment during an appearance on "Fox & Friends" following his victory the night before in a Republican primary runoff election in Texas for a U.S. House seat.
Co-host Steve Doocy cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield's belief that the pandemic could be brought under control in the U.S. within four to six weeks if most Americans donned face coverings.
"Dr. Jackson, what's your message to people who, for one reason or another, simply do not want to wear a mask?" Doocy asked
"Well, I think that wearing a mask is a personal choice," Jackson replied. "I don't particularly want my government telling me that I have to wear a mask. So, I think that's a choice that I can make."
Jackson claimed that researchers now know a lot about the virus and "we know the mortality rate is probably less than 0.1%." But most experts agree there is still a lot of uncertainty about the virus that causes COVID, including the death rate. Jackson did not cite the source for his 0.1% figure, but a study cited by the CDC puts the estimated infection fatality rate at 0.68%.
"So, I think you've got to look at your personal circumstances, you've got to look at your surroundings, you've got to decide if that's right for you. And I'm a firm believer that it's, at this point, a personal choice," Jackson said. "I encourage people if they want to wear a mask, to wear a mask. But I don't wear a mask all that often, to be honest with you."
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Like Jackson, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany has said Trump believes it is "the personal choice of any individual as to whether to wear a mask or not."
Trump was widely criticized for his reluctance to wear a mask in public, which he implied would look unpresidential. The debate injected partisanship into what health experts said is a recommendation rooted in sound science.
The president wore a mask during a visit Saturday to the Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
" I think it's a great thing to wear a mask. I've never been against masks, but I do believe they have a time and a place," Trump said ahead of that trip.
Jackson's ambivalence toward masks contrasts with the position of Texas' Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who earlier this month made it mandatory to wear masks in public in counties with more than 20 COVID-19 cases.
"Wearing a face covering in public is proven to be one of the most effective ways we have to slow the spread of COVID-19," said Abbott when he issued the executive order as Texas faced a dramatic increase in the number of confirmed cases.
"We have the ability to keep businesses open and move our economy forward so that Texans can continue to earn a paycheck, but it requires each of us to do our part to protect one another – and that means wearing a face covering in public spaces."
Jackson won the runoff primary to represent Texas' 13th Congressional District and replace retiring Rep. Mac Thornberry by more than 11 percentage points. Jackson will face Democratic nominee Gus Trujillo, who once interned for Thornberry.
The district is one of the most solidly Republican in the nation, according to the Cook Political Report, and Jackson will be heavily favored in the November election.
Jackson, 53, joined the White House medical team in 2006 and became its director in 2011. In 2013, he became Obama's physician and kept that role under Trump.
In March 2018, Trump announced he was appointing Jackson to take over the Department of Veterans Affairs, but Jackson withdrew his name from consideration after allegations surfaced that he had doled out opioids without prescriptions and drank alcohol while on duty. Jackson said the allegations were "completely false."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Masks are 'personal choice' says ex-WH doc Ronny Jackson