America's top doctor wants public health experts to stop shaming people who aren't wearing masks. Here's how he's trying to get Americans onboard with stopping the pandemic.

America's top doctor wants public health experts to stop shaming people who aren't wearing masks. Here's how he's trying to get Americans onboard with stopping the pandemic.
Surgeon General Jerome Adams said the best way to get people to wear masks is to explain to them why they should do so, rather than shaming them into it.Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
  • Surgeon General Jerome Adams said "shaming does not work" when it comes to getting people to follow public health advice, including the advice to social distance and wear masks.
  • Adams said he was "disappointed" to see public health officials resort to "just out-and-out shaming" to get Americans to comply with coronavirus prevention.
  • Instead, he thinks officials should take the time to help people understand why they should take the recommendations and what the dangers are if they don't.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams doesn't think that shaming people is the best way to get them to wear masks or practice social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.

"I will be frank with you: I've been a little bit surprised — and to a degree disappointed — in how many of my colleagues across the country have resorted to just out-and-out shaming," he told Business Insider in an interview Friday, though he didn't name names.

"We've seen over and over and over again that shaming does not work," he added, citing examples learned in other areas of public health, including sexually transmitted disease prevention and ending drug use. "What we need to do is engage people and help them understand the return on investment to them or to their communities or to the people that they love in a tangible way. And that's how you get people to cooperate."

In recent weeks, some states have allowed businesses to reopen, which has led to surges in COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Photos in the news and on social media have shown people gathered closely together indoors, which goes against public health advice during the pandemic.

The latest data show cases are rising among young people in particular. Some states, such as California and Washington state, have made wearing masks mandatory.


Though young people are less likely to be hospitalized or die from the virus than older people, Adams said it was important to explain why everyone should protect from infection.

"Your decision not to wear a face covering and not to social distance isn't just about you getting sick," he said. "You are on average guaranteed to infect at least one other person, and that person might die."

Read more: If everyone in the US wears a mask in public, 33,000 lives could be saved over the next 3 months, one model suggests

Wearing masks is key to keeping the US open

As the nation's top doctor, Adams is responsible for getting the word out about how people can improve their health. He also oversees 6,000 public health servicemembers that work throughout the government.

Adams said his job as a physician was not to "make moral judgments about the rightness or wrongness" of what people decide to do, but to say "here are the things you should consider to keep yourself and keep others safe."


State and local public health officials had the responsibility to help people understand that, he said, though he added that his remarks shouldn't be taken as a disagreeing with officials or businesses who make mask wearing mandatory.

"But it is to say is that you're going to get a whole lot more cooperation if you always make sure people understand why they're doing it and the benefits that will accrue to them if they do it," he said.

Adams said that he tries to message his recommendations on mask wearing in a way that people might be receptive, saying that historically, Americans don't like the government telling people what to do.

"While they may view face coverings as an imposition on their freedom, I actually view face covering in the wearing of them is increasing our freedom," he added. "If more people wear face coverings, we have less transmission of disease, and that means more places will be able to open and to stay open."

Read more: Companies are pushing for new protections from coronavirus lawsuits, and Senate Republicans agree. Here's everything we know about what's in the works.


The focus on masks is a reversal for Adams who in March had recommended against wearing masks and told people not to buy them because healthcare workers didn't have enough in stock to protect themselves. The World Health Organization used to recommend against healthy people wearing masks too.

Adams later explained that his recommendations changed as the US learned more about the virus, including that it could be transmitted by people who don't have symptoms or before they start having symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control now recommends Americans wear face masks in public.

Adams was appointed by President Donald Trump, who does not wear a mask and has said he doesn't like how it would look.

Adams raised frustrations with how many questions he has had to field on politics in his role, alluding to questions he has gotten on Trump refusing to wear a mask.

"I understand that ultimately you can't separate some of these things from the politics, but it's tough when as surgeon general I spend more time answering questions about the president or about political things than I do about what the people should be doing to keep themselves safe," he said.


Read more: Doctors are getting creative about how they care for their patients amid the pandemic. 3 physicians share what they're doing — and the challenges they still face.