Arizona health experts urge masking in schools to stop COVID-19 spread
PHOENIX — Public health and medical professionals are urging universal masking in schools as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19 among children, especially those who are still too young to get vaccinated.
Dr. Sean Elliott, a Tucson-based infectious disease pediatrician, said the lack of a mask mandate in schools and the spread of the more infectious delta variant are leading to more kids ending up in the hospital for COVID-19.
Elliott, medical director of infectious diseases and immunization for the Arizona chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, estimated the state has seen a 50% increase in hospitalizations of children due to the virus over the last three weeks.
“So what’s left to do? Masks. It’s a simple, straightforward answer,” he said. “That’s how we can get through this pandemic, absolutely that’s what we need to do in a school setting.”
Elliott was among the health experts who spoke at a virtual press conference Wednesday organized by grassroots group Right 2 Safe Schools AZ, which supports universal masking in K-12 public schools.
At least nine school districts have implemented a mask mandate in response to a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
But a state law included in the state budget that Gov. Doug Ducey signed at the end of June prohibits such mandates. The bill that includes the ban goes into effect Sept. 29, although it contains a clause that makes the mask provision retroactive to June 30.
Dr. Atsuko Koyama, a Phoenix-based pediatric emergency room physician, fears that without the ability of schools to require masks, more kids with COVID-19 will need to be hospitalized. Already, she is seeing more kids with the virus ending up in the ER.
“Some with severe illness requiring admission to the hospital, sometimes to the ICU, as well as kids with common cold symptoms,” she said.
Others are coming in with lasting COVID-19 symptoms. She recalled a patient who got infected with the virus six months ago and had lost 15 pounds. He lost his sense of smell and, as a result, he gets nauseous and vomits every time he eats.
Koyama said another child she treated recently had respiratory distress. He had asthma and was having difficulty breathing.
“The very sad part of that story is that he had lost both of his parents to COVID within weeks of each other,” she said.
Ducey has said he is not anti-mask but rather anti-mandate. He has also stressed that masking in schools should be up to parents to decide.
“No one is prohibiting masks,” he told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s The Mike Broomhead Show last month. “If parents want their child to wear a mask, they can wear a mask.”
But Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, said that message by the governor “misses the point of how masking works.”
“This idea that, ‘well, just put a mask on your kid,’ it’s just hogwash and it’s not supported by the data,” Humble said. “And yet, the governor keeps talking about it over and over again.”
He explained a mask protects others as much or more than the person wearing it.
“Masks are really most effective or, you can say, only effective if they’re universally applied,” Humble added.
“So in a classroom setting, it’s far better to have the entire classroom masked because it provides that multiplicative effect of preventing the particles from spreading throughout the room.”