Top Florida Pediatrician: Universal Masking In Schools Is 'Our Only Option' Amid Delta Surge
Florida’s latest surge in COVID-19 cases, fueled by the super-contagious Delta variant, is prompting local governments to reconsider their mask policies.
Leaders of the Broward County school district had expected to lift a mask mandate for the upcoming academic year, but, facing the new onslaught of the virus, the school board voted earlier this week to keep it in place. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis responded swiftly with a threat to call a special legislative session to stop Broward and other districts from mandating masks. Then he said he planned to take care of it with an executive order.
Dr. Lisa Gwynn, president of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says universal masking in schools “is our only option” to keep kids safe and healthy.
“It's a parent's prerogative to be able to make choices and decisions for their children. But if they want to go to public school, they have to abide by public health measures. And that is putting a mask on,” Gwynn told WLRN.
“We've taken this whole choice matter beyond any type of rational thinking,” she said.
During recent debates over policies regarding facial coverings, some anti-mask parents and even elected officials have been spreading misinformation. WLRN broke down some of these myths with Gwynn, a professor at the University of Miami’s medical school who runs a series of pediatric clinics at Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for length and clarity.
WLRN: Thankfully, the risk of children getting really sick or dying from COVID-19 has been low. But I’m wondering if there’s a reason to believe these new variants, like Delta, could pose a bigger risk to children than we saw earlier during the pandemic? Or, does it make it so that kids are more likely to potentially spread the virus to other family members who might be vulnerable, like a grandparent?
GWYNN: Yes, everything that you said is true. And the Delta variant is, in fact, spreading more rapidly, and it is infecting people and making people sicker. And we have at least two kids in the hospital all the time with COVID at Jackson Health System. There's always somebody on the floor that's super sick. And you are starting to see young adults and even teenagers that are in intensive care units on ventilators. It's not as common as in adults. However, that doesn't mean that it isn't going to get worse.
We don't know which children are vaccinated and which aren't, in kids that are 12 to 18. So it's important for everybody to wear a mask to protect each other. And as far as the little ones, they don't have that opportunity to have a vaccination yet. So it's really for their protection as well as their family members at home.
At a recent Broward County school board meeting, there were some parents who oppose mask mandates making a lot of claims about masks that I wanted to get your medical opinion on. So, first, several parents raised concerns about masks making it harder for kids to breathe. I was wondering if you could respond to that idea.
There is no scientific evidence that masks prevent children from breathing. Air gets in and out of these masks very easily.
We wear surgical masks, which are even more restrictive than cloth masks, and we have no problems in the healthcare arena. We feel very strongly that masks are safe to wear for children.
Yes, it does take kids a lot of getting used to, but by now, everyone is pretty much acclimated to the fact that they have to wear their masks.
Parents said bacteria from your mouth stays inside the mask when you breathe, and that that might make kids sick or cause outbreaks on their skin.
There is no evidence of that either. We do encourage parents to wash their child's masks on a regular basis and make sure that the masks are changed out each and every day.
And what about how masks affect kids’ social interactions? What would be your response to parents who say, the mask is getting in the way of my kids’ ability to play with their friends?
I mean, think about that. There should be no reason why a child can't play with their friends just because they have a mask on. We have to keep in mind that a year ago, kids were sequestered in their houses without any social interaction. We're in the middle of a deadly pandemic. We are trying to get our kids back into school in a healthy and safe environment. This is our only option. And if we don't follow these recommendations, we are going to have to return to virtual school again, because kids are going to start to infect each other if they don't have face coverings. It's just that simple.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and some parents have said that parents are the ones who should be making this decision. How do we balance individuals’ rights, parents’ rights to make choices for their children … with the public health interests of the larger community?
I think you hit on the key point: public health interest. So it's a parent's prerogative to be able to make choices and decisions for their children. But if they want to go to public school, they have to abide by public health measures. And that is putting a mask on.
We've taken this whole choice matter beyond any type of rational thinking. I mean, it's pretty simple. Wear a mask to protect yourself and others, get vaccinated, and we'll get out of this pandemic. If we don't do that, it's going to drag on.
Is there a type mask that you recommend for kids?
You can get information on the types of masks that are most effective on the Academy of Pediatrics website. For kids, unfortunately, N95s and KN95s — all these different masks that healthcare workers wear — of course, that is not appropriate for children.
And, you know, as parents, we can really teach our kids that this is something that's going to protect their friends and their grandparents. And the way to do that is maybe in a fun way. You know, all these masks now for kids have all these cute designs, making it more of a positive experience instead of a negative experience. You know, kids emulate what their parents say and do.
As a pediatrician, what questions or concerns are you hearing from parents about the vaccines?
First and foremost, it's totally normal for parents to be concerned about having their child receive a new vaccine. I get that.
The most common concern is that parents say that the vaccine hasn't been out long enough, and they worry about long-term side effects. And we can say with confidence that if a vaccine is going to have side effects, that we usually see them within the first week, to no longer than four weeks after the vaccine. The risks of having complications from the vaccine are much lower than any risks of complications from actually getting the virus.
As the virus keeps spreading and mutating, do you think we could be right back here again next year, like we were a year ago — debating mask policies in schools?
I sure hope not, but if we don't get our vaccination rates up, I am concerned that we will just continue to have these waves after waves. If this keeps mutating and gets more and more infectious, we're going to be in a situation where it's going to be even more dire. So we can't stress enough the importance for everybody to get vaccinated and wear masks.
Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.