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Sharp minds vs. deaf ears / August 11, 2021
The Mecklenburg County School Board is set to vote on a school masking policy when trustees meet next Monday. As if on cue, two Duke University researchers penned an editorial Tuesday in The New York Times that addresses the effectiveness of mask wearing in schools.

The piece, titled “We Studied One Million Students. This Is What We Learned About Masking,” begins as follows:

Big questions loom over the upcoming back-to-school season: Should children be required to wear masks? Should children go to in-person classes at all?

If we send children to school without masks, we increase their risk of acquiring Covid-19. Some could suffer illness or die. If we close schools, millions of children will suffer learning loss, and many of them may suffer lifelong effects on their physical and mental health.

For more than a year, we’ve worked with North Carolina school districts and charter schools, studying the rate of new Covid cases, the efficacy of mitigation measures such as masking and the increased risks of participating in school-sponsored sports. We have learned a few things for certain: Although vaccination is the best way to prevent Covid-19, universal masking is a close second, and with masking in place, in-school learning is safe and more effective than remote instruction, regardless of community rates of infection.

Vaccination is the strongest method for preventing the ill effects of Covid, but students under 12 years of age are ineligible for the vaccines. Masking, then, is one of the best, most readily available methods to protect them from the disease, with universal masking being one of the most effective and efficient strategies for preventing SARS-CoV-2 transmission in schools.

Universal masking in schools can save lives. Voluntary masking in schools will likely be much less effective and could lead to school closures and community transmission. This summer, we’ve seen that voluntary masking has failed in some schools in Missouri and North Carolina, which saw increases in Covid-19 cases and days missed because of quarantines, prompting several districts to reinstate mask mandates.

The full piece is available online at The New York Times, (Easiest way to look it up is by searching for the title, “We Studied One Million Students. This Is What We Learned About Masking.”)

The op-ed’s authors are Kanecia Zimmerman and Danny Benjamin Jr., an associate professor of pediatrics at the Duke University School of Medicine and a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Duke Health, respectively. Given the sterling reputation of the Duke health system in Southside Virginia and beyond, one would hope the authors’ findings will resonate with people throughout our area.

But let’s be clear: in a marketplace of ideas shot through with misinformation, bad faith, propaganda and outright fraud, the Duke researchers — and other like-minded experts and ordinary citizens — are working at a severe disadvantage. One continues to see this with the wrongheaded opposition to vaccination and school mask mandates coming from all too many people in positions of leadership. Two esteemed experts in the fields of pediatric medicine and public health find that masks in school help prevent unnecessary sickness and death. Yet some politicians and local policy makers refuse to listen. Why?

Note how the Duke researchers structure their argument: they start out with two bad but opposing outcomes — students getting sick from COVID-19, or students stuck at home because of the pandemic — and then arrive at a evidence-based solution, however imperfect, on how we can successfully avoid the worst of both worlds and get kids back in school. This is how policy decisions ought to happen — by finding the sweetest spot attainable, taking all relevant factors into account — and in fact, it’s how policy often does get made, even if decisions must go forward over the protests of those who are seemingly immune to facts and reason. (But not to the virus, alas).

It’s a dismaying situation. And look, it’s important to remember that some people who are on the wrong side of this debate — most notably, those who haven’t gotten vaccinated — may stand on identifiable, if not exactly firm, ground. Maybe they’re worried about having to take time off from work if they develop side effects from the shots (temporary though the effects are.) Some folks are homebound, lack transportation, are food-insecure, or deal with a host of other access issues owing to low income or household poverty. Some folks are simply misinformed, which is a pretty easy category to fall into these days with so many gushers of crackpottery spewing from the usual outlets (Fox News, Facebook, talk radio, YouTube, etc.)

Particularly with people in this latter category, one can lament their decision to quarantine in silos of fake news while keeping in mind that such folks are consumers, not perpetrators, of covid propaganda. A staple of the daily news — that is, the real news — is the by-now-familiar tale of a person who swore off vaccination, got sick, ended up in the ICU with the virus and then begged others not to make the same mistake. (These pleas sometimes come as the patient is on the road to recovery, and sometimes after the patient is dead.) We’re up to nearly 620,000 covid deaths in the U.S., with tens of thousands more destined to suffer needlessly. Being misinformed should not be a capital offense, especially when the death sentence lands first and hardest on poor souls operating under received delusions.

But while empathy may be the right response toward some, it’s absolutely not for those who use their elite status to knowingly deceive the public. On the opposite page, Col. Jack Pattison of Skipwith has penned a Viewpoint letter expressing disappointment with the tone of our column last week on state Sen. Frank Ruff (R-Clarksville) and his message to constituents on COVID-19 vaccines. Just as a reminder, Ruff had the audacity to suggest that relatively young adults shouldn’t get vaccinated (“If I am a younger, healthy person, what value is inoculation to me?” he wrote) while offering other medically unsound tidbits (“Clearly, influenza is a greater risk to children than Covid”) that range far outside his area of expertise, whatever that is. I share Col. Pattison’s abiding desire for respectful dialogue, but respect is something that must be earned, not claimed. What claim does Ruff have to respectful treatment when he peddles dangerous falsehoods amongst his constituents?

Let’s put this in one-hand, other-hand terms. On the one hand, we have two Duke University medical experts, doctors Zimmerman and Benjamin, who have carefully studied the data on a million K-12 students in North Carolina schools and concluded that “with masking in place, in-school learning is safe and more effective than remote instruction, regardless of community rates of infection.” They further write that “Although vaccination is the best way to prevent Covid-19, universal masking is a close second” — so by this sentence, we know where they stand on vaccines, too. That’s our first hand to take into account.

On the other hand, a literal know-nothing politician chooses to wade into the realm of public health to dispense irresponsible, medically dangerous advice to local readers and constituents. Do we need to say more here?

Again, with all due respect to those who are put off by the anger shown toward serial misinformers like Frank Ruff, consider the perspective of those who, unlike me, must bear the brunt of such rhetorical nihilism. If I worked in the health care field, I’d be pretty white-hot about the fact that, due in large part to purposeful efforts to convince people not to get the vaccine, the country has entered a fourth wave of misery with the reignited spread of COVID-19 — something that absolutely didn’t have to happen, thanks to well-known mitigation measures such as mask wearing and inoculation.

Maybe the defenders of our hometown state senator might want to run his disgraceful utterances past those who must witness — and suffer for themselves — the wages of such ignorance.

In the meantime, the school board has a decision to make on a masking policy with the new school year about to begin. Spoiler alert: If Mecklenburg County Public Schools does not adopt an indoor mask mandate, the county will be exposed to massive liability if a child or adult gets severely sick from COVID-19, which is practically a guarantee in an anything-goes environment. So the only real suspense here is whether trustees will avail themselves of the opportunity at next week’s meeting to showboat and spout off with all kinds of nonsensical opinions. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that sort of thing going around these days.

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