Reconsidering Masks

Sixty-eight children required hospitalization for covid symptoms on Tuesday alone in Florida this week, more than doubling the number of kids hospitalized for the virus in the state. The Miami Herald reports that the state’s largest increase in covid cases over the last month has been in children under twelve– increasing 700% in just thirty days.

The unfolding tragedy in Florida is all the more difficult to watch because it is the direct result of the failure of state leaders to protect the health and safety of citizens.

I don’t want their tragedy to happen here. In June, the East Penn School District developed a plan to dramatically scale back it’s health and safety precautions against the ongoing pandemic. The plan largely eliminates social distancing measures, and makes masking optional for all students and staff.

The Past

There were good reasons to adopt this approach just six weeks ago. The number of vaccinated people in Lehigh County was better than the national average, the 7-day average number of new daily cases in the county on the day the plan was proposed stood at just 4, there was little concrete information about the new Delta variant of the virus, and health experts had offered little guidance for schools.

The Present

Unfortunately, the world of six weeks ago isn’t the world we live in today. Since the district’s optimistic health and safety plan for the new school year was adopted, more than 2 in 5 eligible people in our county remain unvaccinated, the 7-day average number of new daily cases has grown by more than 800% (from 4 to 35) in Lehigh County, and the Delta variant has proven to be about twice as contagious as the covid strain of last fall (now accounting for at least 3 out of 4 new cases). And thinking specifically about the safety of our kids, the number of children infected with covid rose 85% in the last week alone. Children now account for 19% of all new covid cases nationwide.

These troubling changes, along with new scientific information about the spread of the disease, has led to almost unanimous calls for universal masking in schools among medical and public health experts since East Penn adopted its mask-optional policy. This includes both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC.

The Future

All of this has led me to change my outlook on the district’s plans to keep the community safe this coming fall. All the kids in our elementary schools, and about a third of the kids in our middle schools, have not had the opportunity to be vaccinated. And many school staff remain unvaccinated by choice. Taken as a whole, I believe East Penn should return to indoor universal masking in our elementary and middle schools until conditions in the community improve.

There is no reason Florida’s failures need to be our own.

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