Opinion: Buckle up. Mask up.

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As delta variant causes turbulence in COVID fight, mask mandates more needed

Teachers in Fulton began the school year Monday with vaguely threatening emails from some parents warning teachers to join their anti-mask campaign. “Parents would rather work with you than against you — masks must be made optional,” said one email. Another said, “I, along with many other Fulton County parents, are pursuing legal representation against you and all teachers enforcing mask mandates.”

There is nothing I can say to such willful idiocy, but I tried anyway.

Among the Georgians who lost their lives to COVID-19 this month is a 17-year-old Douglas County football player. A day after Tyler Fairley, a rising senior at Douglas County High School, died, the school board enacted a mask mandate, angering some parents who turned out on the first day of classes Wednesday to protest.

Like the Gwinnett protesters a few days earlier upset over that district’s decision to mandate masks, the Douglas parents insisted they ought to make medical decisions for their children, including whether to mask up against a highly contagious virus that has killed more than 600,000 Americans at this point. Among the signs at the two protests: “Unmask our children” and “Let kids breathe.”

As I write this, I am looking out the window at seven young children on my street playing kickball. All in masks. All having fun. All breathing.

Would those protesters be as willing to carry signs that proclaim, “Let kids die”?

Yes, fatalities among children are rare, but they are not zero as the deaths of the Douglas football player and a Gordon County 5-year-old tragically remind us.

Child cases of COVID-19 in the United States are on the rise. Child hospitalizations are rising and now are the highest they have been during this long pandemic. Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics said in a report: “As of July 29, nearly 4.2 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic. Almost 72,000 cases were added the past week, a substantial increase from the prior week, when about 39,000 cases were reported. After declining in early summer, child cases have steadily increased in July. For the week ending July 29, children were 19.0% of reported weekly COVID-19 cases.”

Doctors and nurses in metro Atlanta are working night and day in hospitals treating COVID patients, almost all of whom are unvaccinated. (The Douglas teen was not vaccinated, according to his mother.) These health workers are having to tell families that they could not save their loved one.

But a vaccine could have. Georgia continues to lag the national average with only 41% of Georgians fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Public Health. And that puts Georgia students returning to crowded school hallways at greater risk, especially teens who are unvaccinated or children under 12 for whom there is no vaccine yet.

That makes masks all the more important to protect those young children who can’t yet obtain the vaccination shield safeguarding older Georgians. Fulton reversed an earlier decision and mandated masks for most of its schools last week in advance of opening day Monday. I asked Fulton Schools about the threatening anti-mask emails to teachers and was told by a spokesman Monday, “It is disappointing. Obviously, our attorneys have argued the actions do not violate the law.”

“The delta variant is several-fold more transmissible than the original variant. As such, it will make secondary attack rates in the unmasked setting much higher. It will result in much more quarantine, and it will result in faster school closures as a result of multiple clusters. So, it makes masking more important,” said Dr. Danny Benjamin in a webinar Wednesday. Benjamin is a professor of pediatrics in the Duke University School of Medicine and chair of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s Pediatric Trials Network.

One helpful analogy is to compare schools reinstating mask mandates to pilots on commercial airlines ordering passengers to rebuckle their seat belts because of turbulence.

We have hit turbulence in our journey to prevent COVID. Buckle up. Mask up.

Echoing the recommendations of pediatricians nationwide and in Georgia, Benjamin stressed that masking is critical for all students, but especially those under 12.

“If you want to prevent COVID transmission at your schools, it’s masking until we have sufficiently high vaccination,” he said. “For districts, pre-K through 6, they don’t have access to a vaccine. They can’t be vaccinated. And for grades 7 through 12, the vaccination rate in the vast, vast majority of counties is well, well below 50%. Clearly, that’s not a viable solution. Therefore, the prevention of transmission all centers around masking universally across the districts.”

State Rep. Dr. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn, organized a town hall where medical experts last week offered both medical expertise and personal perspective. Clark is an Emory University microbiologist.

“We do not have a mechanism in place to know whether teachers are vaccinated or unvaccinated. We don’t have any measure to know the percentage of people who are vaccinated in the school or in your child’s class,” said Clark. “As a parent who is sending her daughter into the school building — my daughter, however, is vaccinated — I will say that sending students back into the building is a calculated risk.”

“I really struggled with whether to send my children back because my children are 5 and 7,” said state Rep. Dr. Rebecca Mitchell, D-Snellville, an epidemiologist focusing on infectious disease. She said her kids need the social interaction that school provides and she takes reassurance in the mask mandate and other safety measures in place in her Gwinnett school.

“But I will remain concerned because they’re my children, and I don’t know what are the right choices for me to be making for them, and I think we are all in that space now,” said Mitchell. “As much education as I have in this area, we don’t have enough information on delta yet to know how it’s going to move in schools.”

“We know masking will work. The key item for schools that are doing masking is to make sure that the fidelity around masking is extremely high, over nose, mouth and chin,” said Benjamin.

And for districts, including Cobb, Cherokee, Marietta and Forsyth, that do not require masks, Benjamin said, “For schools that elect not to mask, best of luck with that.”