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Medical Providers Praise K-12 Mask Mandate

Kathleen J. Davis
90.5 WESA
A masked and an unmasked child play.

For all the controversy surrounding the use of masks to fend off Covid-19, physicians across Allegheny County were pleased by Gov. Tom Wolf's decision to issue a statewide mask mandate for K-12 schools and child care centers.

“It’s absolutely fantastic news ... long overdue,” said Dr. Nathan Shively.

The mandate came through from an order issued by Alison Beam, acting secretary of the state’s Department of Health. It takes effect on Sept. 7.

Shively, an infectious disease physician at Allegheny Health Network, is one of many medical providers who publicly pressured state and local officials to require masking in education settings. One target was Dr. Debra Bogen, a pediatrician and head of Allegheny County’s health department, who thanked Beam during a Wednesday press conference for the order.

But outside of expert medical circles, opinions about the policy change are more divided.

During the public comment portion of Wednesday’s Allegheny County Board of Health meeting, for example, Louis Oliverio of Upper St. Clair told the board that face masks, as well as other COVID-19 mitigation strategies like physical distancing and quarantining, “stifled” children’s return to school.

“Why are there more restrictive requirements in schools than in other places? At what point do we trust the vaccine and other health measures so that our schools can return to normal?” said Oliverio.

The county health department said that the board also received 72 emails in support of school mask mandates.

Oliverio also voiced frustration over the governor’s last-minute decision to require masks. Wolf originally said that he wanted local school boards, or the Republican-controlled state legislature, to establish mandates. The latter option seemed politically dubious, and might have taken the entire school year if not longer.

One reason that masks are being mandated in schools is that kids under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine: While adults have the option to lessen the risk of Covid infection, children do not.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 450 children nationwide have died from Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic. Those cases include two Allegheny County kids who were under 5 years old.

The county reports that so far there have been more than 180 pediatric hospitalizations, which amounts to 1.5% of children who have tested positive for the virus.

Because COVID illness is expected to increase in the coming months when cold weather forces more people indoors, many pediatricians agree with Shively that the mandate should have come sooner.

“[The county] wanted the state to do it. The state wants the feds to do it. Nobody wants to be the one to make this decision,” said Dr. Todd Wolynn. “We’re talking about avoidable and predictable childhood death.”

The head of Kids Plus Pediatrics has been an outspoken critic of public officials and school districts for not mandating masks. Although Wolynn said he was "very, very, very, very, very, very excited,” about the new mask mandate, he added that “it’s insanity” that the issue is so divisive.

Many argue that worry over COVID's risk to children is misplaced, since the 450 pediatric deaths comprise just a sliver of the 641,000 Americans who have died from COVID. But kids in unmasked classrooms are at risk of bringing the virus home and putting others in danger, including their parents. A recent analysis from the University of Southern California estimates that as many as 43,000 American children have lost a mom or dad to the virus.

“These kids live with others, they’re around family members and some of these family members may be immunocompromised,” said Shively. He said that fully vaccinated people who contract serious cases of COVID tend to have significant pre-existing health concerns.

Health department director Bogen noted on Wednesday that the start of the school means increased socialization, which leads to greater spread of the coronavirus, especially if people are unmasked. In light of this, she urged people to get vaccinated.

“We continue to see the trend of serious illness and death from COVID-19 occurring mostly in people who are not vaccinated,” she said. “It really is tragic to lose more people when we have the tool to prevent it.”

Nearly 2,100 Allegheny County residents have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.
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