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At least seven states announced this week they will lift mask mandates for schools, but some public health experts and parents are concerned those decisions are being made too quickly without clear metrics for doing so. Dr. Mercedes Carnethon, a professor of epidemiology, pulmonary and critical care at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.
So far, at least seven states announced this week that they will lift mask mandates for schools. The timing of the changes varies considerably, but it is clear that, by the end of March, many school districts will no longer require masks.
As Amna Nawaz tells us, some public health experts and parents are concerned those decisions are being made too quickly, without clear metrics for doing so.
Judy, Massachusetts is one of those states.
Governor Charlie Baker spoke today about the decision to lift mask mandates for K-12 schools there on February 28.
Gov. Charlie Baker (R-MA):
Given the extremely low risk for young people, the widespread availability and the proven effectiveness of vaccines, and the distribution of accurate test protocols and tests, it's time to give our kids a sense of normalcy and lift the mask mandate on a statewide basis for schools.
COVID, like many other respiratory diseases that we're familiar with, will be with us for the foreseeable future.
As we heard earlier, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said some of these moves are happening too quickly.
Let's hear more from that perspective.
Mercedes Carnethon is vice chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine and a professor of epidemiology, pulmonary and critical care at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
She joins me now.
Professor, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for making the time.
As you saw there, Massachusetts the latest in a growing list of states to announce when they will end those mask mandates in the weeks ahead, not immediately. Is this the right call for them to be making right now?
Dr. Mercedes Carnethon, Northwestern University:
I have significant concerns about the timing for making this call.
What I'm hearing are lowered rates of disease in the community as a justification, when, really, the CDC announced that there are very many communities across the United States that still have high transmission. And our schools are not separate from your communities, but are part of them.
And so, if we see spread in the community, it is also likely that we will see spread in schools, particularly when we take away the one strategy that we have and know works to prevent spread.
Let me ask you about that spread in communities now, because CDC Director Walensky said that indoor masking should continue in areas where high transmission persists.
When you look at the map across the country and you see county-by-county transmission rates there, red is meant to demark areas of high transmission. It's almost the entire country, 99.1 percent of those counties.
So, Professor, transmission is something that the CDC director mentioned. What are the metrics you think leaders should be paying attention to when they make a decision about if and when to lift those mandates?
Dr. Mercedes Carnethon:
And I do support an off-ramp for masking, but it needs to be based on the data. As you point out, one of those metrics needs to be the rate of transmission in the community. Another metric needs to be the percent of the population who are vaccinated, not just children, but across the age range, because, again, children live in communities.
If they contract illness in their schools, they can bring it back out to community members, who may be more vulnerable. And the third metric that I think is critically important is how well our medical systems can manage if there's a surge.
If they're not looking at those metrics and they're making the decision to move ahead to end mask mandates, what do you worry could happen?
I worry very much that we will see a repeat of what we saw in some of the Southeastern regions of the United States in September and August of 2020, again repeated in 2021, when we had the Delta surge.
And that was that we saw outbreaks in schools. When these outbreaks happen, it compromises the progress that we have been making towards lowering our overall rates. And I fear that, if we do this now, when we're starting to see a glimmer of hope, and then have to revert to going back to mask-wearing, we're going to further frustrate and confuse the public and inconvenience a great number of families and compromise educational continuity for our children.
Let me put to you what some folks who are pushing to end those mask mandates in schools sooner say, because they hear this argument and they say, but we're not in 2020 or in 2021 anymore, that we have layers of protection today we didn't have back then.
We have vaccines for kids, higher vaccination rates across the country, higher-quality masks, more testing. And they also say, because we now know the overwhelming majority of kids who get sick or not severely ill, why mandate masks for all kids?
Are they wrong?
I have concerns about that sentiment, and it's driven by what we actually do see.
Certainly, we are in a better position than we were before, primarily because we do have vaccines available to most children who fall within the range of K-12 education. However, what we do not have is widespread uptake among families of children of that age.
And, in fact, when we look at vaccination rates, they are the lowest in young adults and in early middle-aged adults, who are most likely to have children in this age range. Furthermore, removing the mask protection in schools, a place where children spend eight to nine hours a day, really puts them at risk of contracting it.
While most healthy children won't suffer extreme illness requiring hospitalization, there are children in schools who are immune-compromised or who have family members who are vulnerable. And we need to consider what we risk by making children vectors to reinfect our vulnerable members of our community and our school staff.
I will put to you what I have heard from other folks in this debate, which is, in response to that, they say, well, then those parents should continue to have their children mask, teachers who are worried should continue to mask, but all children should not have to mask.
What do you say to that?
You know, let's consider how much children value the input of their peers.
If I were to send — I have two elementary school-aged children. If I were to send them to school and insist they wear masks, yet they saw the majority of the class was not, do I place that on their teachers to assume one more responsibility to follow my wishes? That's not fair to teachers and staff who do not have a voice.
Just lastly, in the few seconds we have left, Professor, this is a difficult moment for parents to navigate, right?
The CDC says, we continue to recommend universal masking inside. Governors are now moving to lift those mandates.
So, for parents who just want to keep their kids safe, how do they navigate this moment?
You know, I think some of the voices we're hearing the loudest are those who are saying, unmask our children.
We need to hear from those parents who want their children to stay in school safely. We want to hear from those parents who would be grossly inconvenienced, either financially or for health reasons, when their children are out on frequent quarantine and isolation due to contracting illness.
It's a privileged position to say, well, if they're only out for five days, it's not that much of a problem. But it is a problem for people who are paid and work hourly or people who cannot work from home or do not have the capacity to educate their children. It becomes an issue of educational equity.
So, even if the argument around masking for reducing severe illness isn't compelling, let's lean on the educational equity argument as well.
That is Professor Mercedes Carnethon of Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.
Thank you for your time.
Thank you very much for the opportunity.
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Amna Nawaz joined PBS NewsHour in April 2018 and serves as the program's chief correspondent and primary substitute anchor.
Courtney Norris is a deputy senior producer of national affairs for the NewsHour. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @courtneyknorris
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