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Virologist says it’s ‘not abusive or cruel’ for kids to wear masks at school

Students and teachers participate in a socially distanced classroom session in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

Cases of COVID-19 are rising almost everywhere in Washington state, mostly due to the delta variant. The main concern in regards to fall for a virologist and frequent guest of KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show, however, is the return to school.

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“Everywhere has a pretty large population of unvaccinated people who are not going to be vaccinated [by fall], and that is children under the age of 12,” Dr. Angela Rasmussen said. “So we do know that certainly the delta variant can spread among children, as can other SARS-CoV-2 variants. But sending kids back to school, potentially without any types of mitigation measures in place to reduce transmission or exposure, we might still be seeing a lot of transmission in that population as school reopens in the fall.”

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Even though kids are at a lower risk, including with the delta variant, of developing severe COVID-19, Rasmussen explains, the risk is not zero.

“They’re still very susceptible to getting infected with SARS-CoV-2, and really it is just a numbers game,” she said. “If you get enough kids that are infected, you will have a certain percentage — albeit lower than in older people — but a certain percentage of those kids will get very, very sick and end up going to the hospital.”

“In addition to that, kids don’t live at school,” Rasmussen noted. “They will be going back home to their families, and if they have people in their households or people that they are close to, even if they have been vaccinated, but they may be immuno-suppressed, they may be older and higher risk for severe COVID, that could mean transmission within that population as well.”

So the return to school is definitely a reason to be concerned, Dr. Rasmussen says, especially if it’s happening without any mitigation, including wearing masks and improving ventilation, or requiring vaccines for teachers and staff as Washington has done.

“I think that we can have back to school, but we do need to take precautions given that the delta variant can spread like wildfire in unvaccinated populations, and children under 12 are a large unvaccinated population,” she said.

On that topic, host Ursula Reutin asked Dr. Rasmussen to respond to people who say that having young children wear masks is cruelty or child abuse, and to those who say there’s no evidence kids under the age of 5 get COVID-19.

“None of those statements are true,” Rasmussen replied. “And the American Academy of Pediatrics has come out and said that there are no developmental issues with kids wearing masks.”

“This is not requiring kids to wear masks 24 hours a day. This is requiring them to wear masks for some hours in the day when they’re in a high-risk situation,” she added. “That is not going to, at least according to pediatricians, that is not going to have a profound impact on those children’s development. It’s not abusive or cruel. Masks are uncomfortable, nobody likes wearing masks — at least most people don’t, I certainly don’t — but it doesn’t mean that it’s abusive to do it.”

In fact, Rasmussen thinks it’s almost worse not to require masks.

“I would argue that it actually is much more abusive to put children in a situation in which they can contract the potentially deadly virus with no protection,” she said.

That goes for children under the age of 5 as well, she says.

“Now there have been children under the age of five that have developed a condition called MIS-C — it’s a multi-systemic inflammatory condition that’s caused by COVID-19 and that can kill children under the age of 5. So I do think that it is important to keep kids, as long as they are in a classroom setting with a lot of people outside their households, to keep those mitigation measures in place to protect those kids.”

Even if kids under 5 aren’t the perfect examples of mask wearing, Dr. Rasmussen says that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taught how to wear a mask.

“That doesn’t mean that the people who are caring for them and teaching them shouldn’t be vaccinated and wearing masks themselves,” she added.

“Any type of mitigation measures we can put into place is great because mitigation is additive,” Rasmussen said. “So that protection from the teacher wearing a mask adds on to the protection from the kids wearing a mask, the vaccines that the teachers have, all of that can add up to really significantly reduce risk.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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