Why Are We Still Masking Children?

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2021/08/20/why-are-we-still-masking-children/

School districts all over Massachusetts are reflexively reinstating mask mandates for K-12 students and staff as the new school year draws near. Worcester, the second-largest school district in Massachusetts, is mandating masks for all staff and students, vaccinated or not, following the path paved by Boston Public Schools. The city’s medical director, Dr. Michael Hirsh, said last week that “As onerous as they can be, masks work — we know this:  Kids are very resilient, and they’re very capable of adaptation. They’ve done very well with masks.”

But we don’t “know this.” In fact, there’s little reason to think this. As seven medical researchers who studied mask-wearing in children wrote recently in JAMA Pediatrics, an American Medical Association publication, “The evidence base for this is weak.”

Let’s set the record straight: the “science” behind K-12 mask mandates is, at best, conflicted. The harm to some children’s physical and emotional health is real. Given pluses and minuses, then, the question is:  Is forcing children to wear masks reasonable?

Three questions help answer that question.


First, what are we protecting K-12 children from?

The risk of COVID-19 to children ages 5-17 is not nearly as high as to adults. That includes the original version of the virus and variants, including the current delta variant. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the rate of hospitalization for COVID-19 during the week of August 7 for children 5-17 is 0.8 per 100,000, which would nationwide be around 400 patients (using the same formula as Dr. Marty Makary and Dr. H. Cody Meissner in the Wall Street Journal). Moreover, even these numbers are inflated, as the American Academy of Pediatrics found; because the Centers for Disease Control has a routine requirement for viral testing upon pediatric hospitalization, we can safely say that about 400 children are being hospitalized with COVID-19, but not how many are being hospitalized for COVID-19.

In terms of susceptibility and infectivity of children, an Israeli study in February 2021 concluded: “Children are about half as susceptible to infection as adults, and are somewhat less prone to infect others compared to adults.” Being “somewhat less prone to infect others” is even more generous than a North Carolina study that found zero cases of student-to-teacher infectivity when 90,000 students were in school – even before the vaccine was available. Another study by the Centers for Disease Control (also pre-vaccine) in Wisconsin also indicated minimal in-school transmission risk.

While it is essential to recognize that a life lost or impaired by COVID-19 is a dear cost – every person is irreplaceable — it is also important to put statistics in perspective. Since the beginning of the pandemic (1½ years), only 354 COVID-19-related deaths among those ages 17 and under occurred in the United States, out of a population of 73 million children. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that the 2018-2019 influenza season (6 months) saw approximately 480 deaths, which, when scaled, is significantly higher than COVID-19’s 354. Another way of putting it:  354 over 1½ years would qualify as a mild flu season. Would anyone require universal masks because it’s flu season?

And for those concerned about the long-term effects of COVID-19 in children, a Lancet study with 258,790 children in the United Kingdom published in early August found that “although uncommon, a small proportion of children have prolonged illness duration and persistent symptoms. Our LC56 data provides reassurance regarding their long-term outcomes.” (“LC56” refers to how the patients were doing after 56 days.) The data shows that children typically had symptom resolution by 8 weeks, indicating only short-term illness from COVID-19. This finding lines up with the largest study done to date by researchers at University College London, the University of Bristol, the University of York, and the University of Liverpool in July 2021, which concluded that “the risk of severe illness and death from SARS-CoV-2 … is extremely low in children and teenagers” and that “those with pre-existing medical conditions and severe disabilities” are the ones with the increased likelihood of serious illness caused by COVID-19.

A Johns Hopkins study of 48,000 children found zero COVID-19-related deaths among healthy children. In the lead researcher’s July 19 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Marty Makary stated “our report found a mortality rate of zero among children without a pre-existing medical condition such as leukemia.” He also expressed his frustration with the Centers for Disease Control’s methodology on children’s COVID-19 deaths (which, at the time of the article, was 335 in the United States).

“The CDC, which has 21,000 employees, hasn’t researched each death to find out whether Covid caused it or if it involved a pre-existing medical condition,” Dr. Makary wrote. “… I’ve written hundreds of peer-reviewed medical studies, and I can think of no journal editor who would accept the claim that 335 deaths resulted from a virus without data to indicate if the virus was incidental or causal, and without an analysis of relevant risk factors such as obesity.”

If children are not nearly as susceptible to contract COVID-19 (even in school settings), not as infective to others, and don’t have the risk of death or serious illness as compared to those who are older, is “masking up” worth it?


Second, of what benefit are masks (and thus mask mandates)?

In May 2020, the New England Journal of Medicine stated this:  “We know that wearing a mask outside health care facilities offers little, if any, protection from infection. Public health authorities define a significant exposure to Covid-19 as face-to-face contact within 6 feet with a patient with symptomatic Covid-19 that is sustained for at least a few minutes (and some say more than 10 minutes or even 30 minutes). The chance of catching Covid-19 from a passing interaction in a public space is therefore minimal. In many cases, the desire for widespread masking is a reflexive reaction to anxiety over the pandemic.”

While the United States, as well as many other countries, enacted mask mandates, several – including Norway – did not, leaving it recommended in some places. Norway’s Institute for Public Health reported:  “Given the low prevalence of COVID-19 currently, even if facemasks are assumed to be effective, the difference in infection rates between using facemasks and not using facemasks would be small. Assuming that 20% of people infectious with SARS-CoV-2 do not have symptoms, and assuming a risk reduction of 40% for wearing facemasks, 200,000 people would need to wear facemasks to prevent one new infection per week.”

What about countries’ actual data, as opposed to statistical estimates? A reporter at The Federalist, Yinon Weiss, graphed COVID-19 case data from U.S. states and several European countries’ “Our World in Data” reports, suggesting that when each government implemented mask mandates, masks did not work in preventing the spread of COVID-19 to the general public.

What about the variants of COVID-19? Well, a team of researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of California earlier this year challenged the idea that schools are inherently dangerous. In a March 2021 op-ed in USA Today, the team, while criticizing school closures and the way their data had been manipulated by some to support school closures, reported:  “we have not seen evidence that variants are spreading through in-person schools. France, Spain, Switzerland, and Belgium have demonstrated that K-12 schools can remain fully open safely even as the United Kingdom variant becomes dominant.

Masks in the vast majority of everyday public settings are not proven to prevent or even effectively lower the risk of contracting COVID-19. Schools typically aren’t dangerous spreaders of the virus. Kids generally aren’t at much risk from it.

And yet mask mandates remain.


Third, what are the possible repercussions of children wearing masks long-term?

Dr. Marty Makary, previously cited as a member of the research team at Johns Hopkins, wrote:  “In March, Ireland’s Department of Health announced that it won’t require masks in schools because they ‘may exacerbate anxiety or breathing difficulties for some students.’ Some children compensate for such difficulties by breathing through their mouths. Chronic and prolonged mouth breathing can alter facial development. It is well-documented that children who mouth-breathe because adenoids block their nasal airways can develop a mouth deformity and elongated face.’”

Masks, while used in health care settings to reduce bacterial shedding, are regularly changed and disposed of to prevent bacterial moisture and increased risk of pathogens. And yet many, including children, are being required to wear cloth masks without sterilization for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. Is it any wonder that mask mandates don’t work?

According to an article in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers measured carbon dioxide in 45 children ages 6-17 while wearing masks, reporting that the averages of inhaled air were over six times higher than the “unsafe” threshold. The authors write (in an article published June 30, 2021):  “Most of the complaints reported by children can be understood as consequences of elevated carbon dioxide levels in inhaled air.” Those complaints were the ones found in a large German survey of more than 25,000 children that reported problems while wearing masks.

In addition to physical problems, we know that children with problems hearing and speaking find mask wearing especially frustrating. Masks inhibit communication. Those who continue to say that children wearing masks is an easy enough “fix” to attend school are missing the injustice that mask rules cause. Relative to the small risk posed to them and others, children have had to sacrifice far more than should be required.

All along, the response to the coronavirus pandemic has been more harmful to children than the virus itself. Millions had to attend school virtually for nearly 1½ years, causing educational deficits to multiply. Doubled anxiety and depression rates, increased suicidal states, and hidden learning disabilities are just a few of the many devastating impacts of lockdowns and closed schools.

Now that keeping schools closed is a non-starter all over the country, some are determined to keep students muzzled, on the basis of shaky evidence. Yet it is wrong for children to unnecessarily suffer by causing them to live their lives in fear through mask mandates.

The virus that we are trying to protect them from poses minimal risk of serious illness and death to children. Masks’ efficacy and safety are questionable both in studies and national data. Children face the possible physical harm of increased risks of pathogens, bacteria from improper mask hygiene, as well as the mental health concerns of increased anxiety with impaired breathing.

Swallowing the noble lie that mask mandates work, with no damage to children, is harmful.

Worried about the safety of children?  That’s the right response. To that end:  Let’s protect children from mandates that may cause more harm than good.


Deborah Cumbee is a research assistant for Massachusetts Family Institute. She is a graduate of Gordon College, where she served as the managing editor of The Gordon Review and co-leader of the American Enterprise Institute’s student council.


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