YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Yamiche Alcindor.
Nearly 4.2 million children have been diagnosed with COVID-19; that’s according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. With cases rising and the Delta variant spreading, many parents have been wondering how to keep their children safe as schools reopen. Two major concerns surround vaccine rates and mask mandates for students and educators. Those decisions can be a challenge for families with children under 12 who can’t yet get vaccinated. How safe will kids be in school and what role are politics playing in deciding that?
Joining me tonight are four reporters covering it all: Lisa Lerer, national political correspondent for The New York Times; Katherine Wu, staff writer for The Atlantic covering science; and joining me in studio, Leigh Ann Caldwell, Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News; and Josh Dawsey, political investigations and enterprise reporter for The Washington Post. Thank you so much, all of you, for being here.
Katherine, I want to start with you. So many kids are eager to go back to school or at least maybe see some of their friends. Parents, though, are very worried. What are school districts doing to ease the minds of parents as students return?
KATHERINE WU: Yeah, this is a really important question to be thinking about right now, and I think one of the most effective things that school districts can do right now is to make sure that everyone in a school, regardless of vaccination status, regardless of age, is wearing a mask. This is certainly controversial in different parts of the country, but we know that masks work incredibly well. For those in schools who are eligible for vaccination, masks can really complement a vaccine. They can prevent a virus from getting in so the vaccinated body has less to deal with. And we also know that no children under 12 are currently eligible for vaccines and they don’t have access to them outside of clinical trials. That’s expected to happen in coming months, but we don’t have an exact timeline for that yet. We’re waiting for confirmation, as expected, that the vaccines will be safe and effective in this population, but that is 50 million kids in this country that don’t yet have access to vaccines. That is a huge, huge, huge deal. In addition to masks, schools can be focusing on ventilation, making sure that airflow is good in their schools, making sure that kids, you know, when they are congregating to eat and taking off those masks, that they’re doing it in safe spaces, keeping their distance from each other. This past year has really taught us that transmission in schools is actually remarkably low, but that’s with those measures in place – masks, ventilation, tests, distancing. There is a way to keep kids safe right now, but it’s more important than ever because we know this new variant is more transmissible, it’s more formidable, and it really is pummeling the unvaccinated in this country right now.
MS. ALCINDOR: Pummeling the unvaccinated. Josh, we’re seeing this split – it’s a split, but it’s also, of course, heavily sided on one side – which is Governor DeSantis threatened to defund school districts – that’s governor of Florida – who apply mask mandates, but then you have Arkansas governor – the governor of Arkansas, who said he regretted signing into law a mask – a mask mandate and – banning mask mandates, rather. What do you – what do you make of this rift and the idea that the governor of Arkansas is now saying essentially, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that?
JOSH DAWSEY: Well, I think the governor of Arkansas sees that he has a big problem on his hands with cases surging in the state. Asa Hutchinson, the governor there, is not really a Trump Republican. I mean, he’s backed Trump but he’s not kind of in the MAGA movement. And you have a lot of parts of Arkansas that have really had incredible surges. A lot of these states have had incredible surges. And you know, in Florida, DeSantis, Governor Noem of South Dakota, have really taken these proudly public stands against, you know, these public health mandates, against restrictions, against doing anything that would be seen as kind of curbing people’s freedom in their words. But then you have governors in other states who are seeing, you know, five times, six times, exponential rises in cases. You’re seeing COVID tents outside of hospitals to bring patients in go back up. You’re seeing emergency room doctors go on television and say we’ve not had this many cases in more than a year. You’re seeing entire families, you know, decimated with people having COVID. I think for some of these governors they want to take the more DeSantis stance, but at the same time they’re looking around their state and they’re seeing, you know, we really have a problem on our hands.
MS. ALCINDOR: And Leigh Ann, you’ve done a lot of reporting on evictions. I’m struck by this idea that there is this legal challenge that’s already happening. We’re already seeing landlord groups coming back and pushing against the CDC and the White House for having this new, more limited ban. What do you make of that? And I think you can just talk a little bit more about the drama that got us to this ban in the first place.
LEIGH ANN CALDWELL: Yeah, so as far as the legal challenges, that was expected. Even President Biden said when he previewed the announcement by the CDC that he expected it, and he’s not sure that if it would pass legal muster or not.
MS. ALCINDOR: Pretty extraordinary for him to say that.
MS. CALDWELL: Right, and that was always – that was the reason that the CDC and the White House didn’t act for those three days. They kept pointing to that previous Supreme Court decision that said that they – it didn’t have legal muster. So, you know, there’s been a lot of pushback from landlords, from the real estate lobby group, and they’re getting a lot of pressure and they have a lot of money to put behind this legal case. As far as the leadup to it, you know, this – the fact that the White House and Speaker Pelosi and Democratic leadership in the Senate, too, did not socialize this issue amongst Democrats and their members before – two days before this ban was set to expire was the big problem here. I would ask members about it and Democratic senators and they were, like, I don’t really know yet, I – we don’t know a lot of what sort of impact this would have and how this would move forward, and so I think that a lot of people just dropped the ball and I think that it also just snuck up on people.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Lisa, I’m also struck by this idea that there are a lot of temporary fixes that are helping our economy right now. You have the idea that there’s this sort of pause on student loan repayments, there’s the unemployment benefits, there’s also, of course, the eviction moratorium. But what happens if this house of cards, if that’s what you – some might call it – falls apart?
MS. LERER: That’s a really good question, and it’s one that the White House is worried about. I mean, what happens when all these things expire if the virus is not under control and the economy – things are – you know, things are not open and we’re not back up to full speed? I think it’s a really serious question. And that is a big part of the reason why the political environment feels so precarious right now. It does feel like a bit of a political gamble to see governors like DeSantis taking this firm kind of anti-mask, anti-COVID restriction position.
But it’s just – we’ve been – we live in turbulent times and it’s just really hard to know how this is all going to play out. And it does feel like a lot of these measures are just kind of pushing the ball down the road and giving people a little bit more relief. But there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight to the virus. And, you know, certainly as people are hearing more about these new strains that are in Peru and abroad, it’s just hard to see when this – when this ends.
MS. ALCINDOR: And as we continue the discussion surrounding COVID-19, we took to Twitter for questions from our audience. Leigh Ann, I want to come to you. The first question is – I’m going to read it off here. What justice can be brought to the families that have followed the ill advice of their elected officials if they become ill or lose family members to the virus? Who will be held responsible? The governors or local officials, or both?
MS. CALDWELL: That’s an excellent question that I don’t actually know the answer to. But it could become a – it could, at the very minimum, become a political problem for people, especially as it is Republican – tend to be Republican conservative voters and people who are not following mask guidelines and who are not getting vaccinated. And they are also the ones who are ending up in the hospital. And so that could really backfire.
And something that really struck me about Governor DeSantis is what was reported in The Washington Post tonight, is that for the families who don’t want – who want their kids to wear masks and aren’t comfortable going to school, he is issuing school vouchers, which is another very controversial conservative philosophy on schools. So he’s simultaneously expanding a separate conservative ideology issue while, you know, putting pressure and sticking to his anti-mask decisions.
MS. ALCINDOR: That’s incredible. And it really solidifies that this is really – we’re in a culture war here, and that there’s science but there’s also so much politics in this.
I want to go to the next question. It is: As an educator, I do not know the vaccine status of my students – of my student’s parents. I’m wondering if children age six to 11 can be asymptomatic carriers of COVID? Katherine, we’re going to come to you because you’re our health expert here. What’s the answer to that, do you think?
MS. WU: Yeah, so this is a very complicated question to answer. I think the short answer here is: Yes, children can asymptomatically carry the virus. And I think there is good news tucked into that. We still know that at this point in the pandemic, even with the more transmissible variant around, COVID does seem to be, on average, less severe in kids. They can carry the virus, they can transmit it, but, again, schools are not really places of huge transmission. When transmission does occur, you know, historically in the past it has generally happened in the home.
But the good news here is that adults have the opportunity to be vaccinated at this point. That cuts down on their infection risk, that cuts down on their possibility of transmitting it to their kids, and then their kids transmitting it either back to them or to other adults. That makes a huge, huge difference. So it is complicated to not be able to know the vaccination status of parents of children in your classroom. That is a very difficult situation. But again, this is where masks can really provide a huge buffer. And this is where general messaging about vaccines can make a huge difference. If more parents are vaccinated, if more community members are vaccinated, I think other people in that same community will follow suit. The same is going to be true with masks.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Katherine, I’m going to stick with you for this next question. It is: Are breakthrough cases going to occur more and more as those who are – who were vaccinated fix months ago – or even six, seven, eight months ago – start to need a booster? And if the unvaccinated remain unvaccinated, will this ever end? Will it ever end? That is a question that I could ask you almost every day.
MS. WU: (Laughs.) Yeah, so I mean, I guess I’ll split my answer into two parts. The first is, yes. Breakthrough case numbers are going to go up. But that is just a function of the natural arithmetic of more people being vaccinated, so there’s a larger pool in which breakthrough infections are going to occur, and the fact that this virus is, unfortunately, not going away anytime soon. As more people are vaccinated, we’re in the hundreds of millions of people who are vaccinated at this point, even if breakthrough infections are occurring just a small percentage of those, a small percentage of, you know, 160 million people is still a lot of people.
But, you know, again, breakthrough infections should not scare people. Remember that this is sometimes just the virus encountering your body, sticking around long enough to be detected, but not necessarily making you sick. We know that the vaccines are working still incredibly well, even months out from initial vaccination, to protect people against severe disease and death, and even, you know, symptomatic cases. We’re still seeing effectiveness rates in the 80 percent range, in the 90 percent range. That’s incredibly encouraging.
I don’t want people to be afraid of breakthrough infections, because at this point we are moving toward a future in which encountering COVID is not going to be quite as scary. You know, at some point we probably all will encounter this virus. Vaccination will ensure – or help ensure that the vast majority of those encounters will be mild and not overwhelm our bodies, and not overwhelm the health care system.
MS. ALCINDOR: Well, I should tell you me and Josh were looking at each other when you said most of us will encounter this virus. It’s probably so true. It, of course, reflects your reporting. But it is scary to even think that.
And I want to go to Josh and Lisa for this last question. It’s a bit political. This last question is from Twitter, again. It says: What particular line of information or conversation is the most helpful/convincing in getting unvaccinated relatives and friends and get the vaccine? This Twitter user says, quote, “I’m just worried sick about my conspiracy theorist believing family and friends.” Lisa, I’m going to come to you first. What could we say to this person?
MS. LERER: (Laughs.) I mean, look, it’s hard, right? Those conspiracy theories on the internet were seeded – you know, we’ve seen – I should say, we’ve seen the anti-vax movement in the Republican Party, at least, growing since, I remember President Trump sort of raising questions about vaccinations long before COVID, when he was just a candidate in 2015. So in the Republican Party, this has been gaining traction. It’s also been gaining traction on the left sort of fringes of the Democratic Party as well. And those conspiracy theories are deep and they’re really accessible. The internet puts them at everyone’s fingertips.
I mean, I don’t know that I have such great advice, but I am a believer in, like, sort of open, honest conversations, and maybe sort of speaking from a sort of a place of warmth and trying to convince people. And if that doesn’t work, I think you probably have to put in rules to protect yourself and your own kids. But it’s a really hard situation. I think it’s one that a lot of families across the country are finding themselves in right now.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Josh, what would you say to this person?
MR. DAWSEY: I think it’s also personal experiences, right? I mean, family members, and friends, and people who know others who are vaccine hesitant saying to them, you know, I had the vaccine. I was only sick for, you know, 12 hours, or 24 hours. It was very minor. And, you know, now I’m protected. And explaining that there’s not these deleterious side effects. I think for folks who believe these political theories, and how Lisa was just saying about President Trump. President Trump was vaccinated himself. I mean, he told his supporters last night at a fundraiser in New York, behind doors, like, you should all get vaccinated. I want my people to be safe.
You know, there are a lot of folks who – you know, you have a kind of disinformation dozen that the White House and others go out. But you have a lot of folks even on the right, even Trump supporters, who have been vaccinated. I think it’s to point to folks who, you know, maybe your family members or friends admire and say: Listen, that person got vaccinated.
I think more than anything it’s just the severity of this now, right? I think it’s a lot easier to talk to people about getting vaccinated. I’m not a health care expert, obviously, but when you have cousins, and relatives, and friends, and you know people in the hospital, and you know people on incubators, and you know folks who are, you know, really struggling to make it. And they see the real-life impacts of this virus. I think it’s a lot easier to make the case.
MS. ALCINDOR: It certainly is, and I’m thinking about it – I’ll take a stab at this question, take a bit of liberty. When I think about kind of what helps, I sat through this – it must have been four or five hour Frank Luntz focus group with Trump supporters. And they basically said that they would want to hear from trusted officials, and that would be their doctors, their personal friends, their pastors. So really I think there’s sharing that information. I also – when I’m thinking about some of the stories that I’ve read, there was a story about people going in to get vaccinated, but wanting to be disguised, and basically wanting to not have their neighbors know that they’re vaccinated. So also maybe stressing to people: No one has to know if you got vaccinated, but it’s probably a good idea.
So thank you so much, all of you, for answering our audience questions. We’ll have to leave it there tonight. Thanks for sending in your questions as well. Thank you to Lisa, to Katherine, to Leigh Ann, and Josh for joining us and sharing your reporting, and make sure to sign up for the Washington Week newsletter on our website. We will give you a look at all things Washington.
I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night.