States roll back mask mandates in schools despite opposition

The decision Monday by the governors of New Jersey and Delaware to end masking mandates in schools makes them the latest states to roll back requirements. It comes as the CDC and groups continue to recommend masking in schools to reduce COVID infections. Dr. Lucy McBride, an internist in Washington, D.C., joins Amna Nawaz to discuss why she disagrees with mask mandates in schools.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The announcements today by the governors of New Jersey, Connecticut, and Delaware that they will soon and masking mandates in schools make them the latest states to change their approach to COVID.

    As Amna Nawaz explains, the debate around this has heated up in recent weeks.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, to be clear, the CDC and groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics continue to recommend masking in schools to reduce the spread of COVID. And they say the evidence is clear.

    But several states have now either rolled back their mandates or are considering doing so. And a number of doctors have published opinion pieces arguing that masks are difficult for children to use, detrimental to their well-being, and may not prevent infections, based on the data in other studies.

    So far, it's a minority of doctors arguing this, but we're going to hear from one of them tonight who co-wrote a piece in USA Today.

    Doctor Lucy McBride is an internist in Washington, D.C. She has written columns for USA Today, The Washington Post, "The Atlantic" and others. She joins me now.

    Dr. McBride, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for being here.

    In your latest piece, you cite the alarming mental health crisis we have seen among kids in America, the learning loss that we also know is very real, but those, as you note in your piece, are mostly related to school closures and lockdowns and remote learning.

    On masking specifically, what is the evidence you have seen that shows masking in schools is harmful for kids?

  • Dr. Lucy McBride, Sibley Memorial Hospital:

    Two years of living in the pandemic have caused a lot of harm to children.

    And it's difficult to quantity the losses, emotional and social toll that children have faced. But let's also recognize that there is mounting data that our earliest readers have trouble when they don't see faces.

    So children who are struggling with speech and language delay, children who are — have English as a second language, and every child who wants to connect with peers, mentors, teachers, it is really time to think about the time that masks are not a harmless intervention.

    When we have an intervention like masking as a mandate, it's imperative that we show that the benefits outweigh the risks. Our oath in public health and medicine is first do no harm. And at this watershed moment of the pandemic, where Omicron is starting to recede, it is really time to appropriately balance risks and harms to our lowest-risk population. And that's children.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let me ask you what the CDC will say, because, obviously, they point to multiple studies.

    They have put out the most recent data just a few days ago that says masks work. There are advantages to reducing the risk of transmission, to protecting people who wear the mask. And they say, look, schools have not been hot spots in the pandemic because kids have been masking. In counties where there was no mask mandates, they did see outbreaks.

    So, isn't that enough to say to you, let's continue to keep as many kids as we can safe?

  • Dr. Lucy McBride:

    Right.

    And that's why my co-authors and I have dissected these studies again and again. The CDC studies that are citing have not controlled for community vaccination rates. And that is a huge variable.

    We also see that, yes, N95 respirator-type masks certainly can protect the wearer, but the data on cloth masks is weak. And, again, we just don't have real-world studies to show that masking kids in schools helps reduce transmission.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let me ask you about vaccinations, then, because it is a key part of this argument.

    We know that the uptake among younger kids in particular is very low. It's only about 22 percent of kids aged 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated. So, before schools get rid of masks or mask mandates, do you recommend that they require vaccines?

  • Dr. Lucy McBride:

    I don't recommend that we tie unmasking to vaccination.

    However, it's important that parents recognize the vaccines are extraordinarily safe and effective and widely available. So, as a doctor and as a mother myself, I do recommend vaccination, particularly for children at highest risk for poor outcomes from COVID-19.

    And if that child is particularly high-risk and is still hesitant about the vaccine, you can mask that child with an N95 respirator-type mask. Remember, though, the risk of COVID-19 to most healthy children is very, very low and on par with influenza. It's not the same virus, but the risk is similar enough. And the risk is dropping as Omicron disease prevalence drops locally.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let me ask you about some of the concerns others have raised about the messaging about the significance of COVID among children.

    Some people worry it's been underplayed to some degree. And we spoke recently to Dr. Yvonne Maldonado. She's a pediatric infectious disease professor at Stanford.

    Here's what she had to say about that messaging.

    Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, Committee on Infectious Diseases Chair, American Academy Of Pediatrics: Tens of thousands of children have been hospitalized. More recently, with Omicron, we have been overrun with hospitalizations. We know that there have been over 1,000 children who have died.

    And, again, not to make light of that number, we know that adults have died in many higher numbers, but that is not a reason to allow children to die unnecessarily.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. McBride, it is absolutely true more adults have died. Total deaths among kids zero to 17 now total over 1,200.

    And it's different when you talk about child deaths. So what would you send to Dr. Maldonado?

  • Dr. Lucy McBride:

    I'm so glad you asked that question, because every death of a child is tragic, no matter what the cause.

    There's no — there's — we should not be minimizing the trauma and loss to families who have lost a child to COVID-19. We also know, in 2022, exactly how to protect those high-risk children. We vaccinate them. We boost them if they're particularly high risk, like the adolescents who have obesity or underlying cardiac conditions or who are on immune-suppressive medications, and we vaccinate the adults around them.

    Protecting unvaccinated children like the under-5's is best done by vaccinating adults around them. In other words, we need to think broadly about protecting populations. So, as the World Health Organization says in their constitution, health is not simply the absence of disease or infirmity. It is a state of mental, social, emotional, and physical health.

    And it's not easy in these very, very complicated times to balance all of those risks. But, right now, masking children in schools, when masks are not clearly reducing transmission, is not the way to save those lives of those vulnerable children or vulnerable adults.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I have a feeling this is a conversation we're going to be having for quite some time to come.

    Dr. Lucy McBride, grateful to you for joining us tonight. Thank you.

  • Dr. Lucy McBride:

    Thank you so much.

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