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States around the nation, including Democratic ones such as New York and California, are lifting indoor mask mandates. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention refuses to budge. It continues to recommend indoor masking in communities with substantial or high transmission — essentially the entire country — a stance that is particularly exasperating and harmful in regards to schools. The agency recommends masking all students ages 2 and older.
In congressional testimony, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky insisted that school mask mandates continue. The following day, at a White House briefing, Walensky, after acknowledging rapidly falling COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths, said the agency would reconsider its guidelines, but gave no indication any update would apply to schools.
Two days later, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief White House medical adviser, echoed his overcautious colleague, telling CNN that ending school masking would be “risky.”
Yet, whatever rationales were previously advanced to justify school mask mandates have long since disappeared and the benefit of masking children is outweighed by the cost.
From the start, it was clear that COVID-19 posed little threat to children. On a March 10, 2020 — one day before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic — Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, noted that only 2% of COVID-19 cases were in ages 19 and below and that they were not developing serious illness.
COVID-19, she said, is, “a disease that affects adults. And most seriously older adults. Starting at age 60, there is an increasing risk of disease and the risk increases with age. The highest risk of serious illness and death is in people older than 80 years. People with serious underlying health conditions also are more likely to develop serious outcomes including death.”
Nothing has changed since then. Less than two-tenths of 1% of COVID-19 deaths have been in people 17 and younger. School-age kids (ages 5-17) are currently just 2.7% of COVID hospitalizations.
Older students also face little risk — the 18 to 29 group only accounts for 0.8% of COVID deaths. In contrast, more than three-quarters of COVID deaths are in those 65 and older. Children appear to be less susceptible to infection than adults, have milder cases, and may be less likely to transmit infection than adults. With the currently predominant Omicron variant, children’s generally mild illnesses are even milder.
There is little evidence that masking students protects others. A study in Sweden which kept schools open without mask mandates found that teachers had no increased risk of severe COVID-19 infection as compared to other occupations.
Other studies primarily done before vaccine approval confirm that students are not causing transmission in schools. Staff-to-staff transmission is more common than transmission from students. The correlation between school outbreaks and COVID incidence in the community suggests that adults infected in the community pose a far greater risk to students and staff than students do.
It is no surprise that the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control recommends against masks for children 12 and younger. It only recommends masks for older students and adults living in areas with high COVID community transmission.
Walensky has repeatedly cited an Arizona study that found schools without mask mandates were 3.5 times more likely to have COVID outbreaks than schools that required masks. Yet, as David Zweig showed in the Atlantic, multiple experts agree the study was so rife with methodological problems that its conclusions are worthless.
Compared to the purported tripling of protection attributed to masks in the Arizona study, an earlier CDC study of Georgia schools found only a statistically insignificant 21% lower incidence in schools that required mask use among students compared with schools where mask use was optional.
Masks always have been unrealistic for schoolkids. As the European Centre noted, children “may have a lower tolerance to wearing masks for extended periods of time, and may fail to wear them properly.”
Moreover, masks may interfere with children’s ability to recognize and interact with their peers and teachers and could stunt their development. Mask proponents often cite a study showing that children have no more difficulty reading the emotions of people wearing masks than people wearing sunglasses. But that study found children’s ability to infer emotions were more accurate with uncovered faces compared to covering with masks or sunglasses.
Besides, when do children encounter an environment where everyone is wearing sunglasses?
Earlier in the pandemic, masks may have facilitated a return to in-person learning. But now there is widespread vaccine immunity and natural immunity after recovery, particularly with the highly transmissible Omicron variant. New monoclonal antibodies and oral antivirals significantly reduce the risk of severe COVID illness. And case numbers are rapidly falling. These developments, combined with the dubious evidence supporting school mask mandates, mean that the time has come for the CDC to change its guidelines.
Dr. Joel Zinberg, MD, is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and director of public health and wellness at the Paragon Health Institute.