Dr. Nicole Saphier: COVID, masks and our kids – it's time to follow the science and use commonsense

Public health officials have not given a clear metric as to what the COVID-19 risk is to children and when they can remove their face masks

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The COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment where deductive reasoning is not being utilized.  Fear has permeated the country and penetrated society.  As the United States begins to exit the state of emergency, children are being held hostage from an apparent level of danger formed from a pervasive bias of information being given. 

While vaccine trials are underway evaluating the safety and efficacy in young children, many parents and educators believe they should remain in face masks until they are eligible, which may not be until 2022. This is the message portrayed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the updated school guidance insists on universal mask wearing for K-12 schools to be open safely.

But this isn’t how population immunity works. 

It is the collective immunity of a population to protect the vulnerable and lessen viral transmission so the nonimmune are protected and further variants are less likely to form. As immunity grows, the concern changes from protecting a community to mitigating individual risk.

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Over 87% of Americans over 65 years old have received at least one dose of the vaccine, which is why daily deaths have gone from over 4,000 per day to nearly 200, a level seen during bad flu seasons.  As adults have gotten vaccinated, cases in children have decreased by 86% since January 2020, with all 50 U.S. states reporting <10% positivity of tests.  

Community transmission of the virus has clearly dropped as the wall of immunity continues to grow. 

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Yet, public health officials have not given a clear metric as to what the risk is to children and when they can remove their face masks.

The disappointment in the bureaucratic bloat that is the CDC is unmeasurable, while many physicians and parents have consistently demanded accurate risk analysis and adaptability as new information becomes available without much result. 

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Earlier this month, the CDC published data from January through April 2021 showing children ages 5-11 years were 4 times less likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19 than the usual flu. Notably, the higher hospitalization rate from flu is despite a vaccine for influenza known to decrease severity of illness. In a nutshell, the flu, even with a vaccine, has a higher risk of severe illness in children than COVID-19. 

Instead of expediting release of the optimistic news, the CDC sat on the data for 2 months, while over a third of children remained out of in-person schooling. This comes on the heels of a study in the journal Hospital Pediatrics, that showed pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations were overcounted by at least 40 percent in two hospital systems. 

Overcounting of hospitalizations has been a concern since the beginning of the pandemic. Only now are retrospective studies being performed to prove universal testing has led to inflation of hospitalization rates, deaths too. Cravenly, the CDC hasn’t commented much on this.

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Many parts of the country are at the point where the virus has become endemic, and no longer an outbreak. When community levels have dropped to under 10/100,000 people, the benefit of face masks to reduce transmission do not outweigh the consequences that can occur while wearing them. 

The continued wearing of masks does not come without inherent risks itself. Prolonged wearing can result in dermatological issues like acne, poor ventilation leading to dizziness, oral and sinus infections can develop from excessive moisture, and an overall increase in socio-psychological stress can affect development and mental health. Not to mention something adults have come to be all too familiar with, the fogging of eyewear while wearing a mask. If adults find this to be an insufferable nuisance, imagine a young child trying to learn.  

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It is essential to garner more trust in our public health entities, especially as it relates to our children.  To do this, they will have to be able to say publicly that children are less likely to transmit the virus, less likely to get infected if exposed, and much less likely to have a bad outcome if they do get infected. 

As a result of lowered transmission and the mountain of data showing low risk of severe outcomes, it is time for children to remove their masks without being contingent on receiving a vaccine through the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). Cohorting and improved ventilation will continue to be beneficial in child-related activities as community transmission waxes as wanes throughout the seasons, but the removal of face masks at this point of the pandemic is prudent.

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As a society, we are willing to tolerate a certain level of risk and still go about normal life. Regarding COVID-19 and children, the country is at a level that has been accepted for decades without harsh measures.

Acknowledging truths isn’t irresponsible or dangerous; it’s following the science. 

Editor's note: Dr. Nicole Saphier's views on this topic are her own. 

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