As children return to school amid a rise in COVID-related hospitalizations in various parts of the U.S., health professionals are calling on schools to mandate masks to stem the spread of coronavirus.
“The simple message I have is: Let’s get the kids in masks,” Dr. Andre Campbell, an ICU physician and trauma surgeon at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “Masks don’t hurt. They’re safe. And the kids will wear them. If we do that in the short term, that will help protect the kids. Remember, we’ve had 204,000 new cases in kids. On average, there are 330 new cases of children being hospitalized in the United States.”
According to the latest data from the American Academy of Pediatrics, over the week ending August 26, the U.S. saw 204,000 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases in children. Over the past month, COVID cases among children have risen five-fold and now account for 22.4% of weekly cases.
Vaccines from Pfizer (PFE), Moderna (MRNA), and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) are very effective in preventing cases of serious illness and death. At the same time, transmission among unvaccinated populations seems to occur at a much higher rate as the highly contagious Delta variant circulates in the U.S.
“The unvaccinated folks are the ones who are actually spreading the virus around,” Campbell said.
Most children are unvaccinated since only kids ages 12 and up can receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Nevertheless, some states are prohibiting mask mandates in schools as those governors leave it up to the parents to decide whether or not to mask their children.
Govs. Doug Ducey (R-AZ), Ron DeSantis (R-FL), Greg Abbott (R-TX), Henry McMaster (R-SC), Asa Hutchinson (R-AR), Spencer Cox (R-UT), Kim Reynolds (R-IA), and Kevin Stitt (R-OK) have signed laws banning school mask mandates in their respective states.
Campbell disagreed with these decisions.
“We have to do anything we can do,” Campbell said. “This debate about masking up, it shouldn’t be a debate. Let’s do what’s safe for our kids. Let’s protect them. Mask them up.”
A couple of governors have reconsidered: Hutchinson has spoken openly about his regret for allowing such legislation, and Cox is reportedly considering allowing local jurisdictions in his state to implement their own mask policies.
'Let’s protect our kids until they can get the vaccine'
Studies have shown that masking makes a difference in protecting the wearer and those around them from the virus by mitigating the viral loads being transmitted both ways.
“Masking is safe,” Campbell said. “We should mask our kids. Let’s protect our kids until they can get the vaccine. It’s now fully approved for 16 and over. We’re waiting for the data for younger kids. Let’s protect our kids and make sure they’re not a source now of the next wave.”
Campbell also asserted that all school employees "should be mandated now to get the vaccine."
States like California, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington have put mandates in place that require any employee working in a school to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released a report highlighting how an unvaccinated teacher in California infected with COVID-19 likely spread the virus through her classroom after working for just two days and sometimes speaking to the class unmasked.
'Way more patients than there were before'
There have been more than 39.5 million cases of coronavirus in the U.S., with an 18% increase over the past 14 days. During that time period, COVID-related deaths have surged by 75% while hospitalizations have risen 17%.
“I think we have to do every single thing we can to push this back because think about what it was like in June,” Campbell said. “In June, we thought things were turning the tide. There were only 10,000 cases. Now we’re up above 150,000 cases. And that’s because the Delta variant in June was 1% of our infections. Now, it’s 99%. So it has changed the character of the pandemic.”
He added that Americans are currently "in a new phase. It’s a little bit ‘Back to the Future’ again. We’re back to where we were. But we have to remember: This is a new variant and a variant that is much more virulent, much more powerful, and there are way more patients than there were before.”
On top of rising case counts, Southern states are also dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. When natural disasters strike, public health guidelines — like social distancing, wearing masks, hand hygiene, and proper ventilation— become a challenge to maintain.
“Louisiana, Texas, and Florida are already hard-hit,” Campbell said. “It will get worse there before it gets better. That’s combined with kids going back to school. There’s a bit of a surge with kids going back to school, too, because there’s a little bit more debate than I think there should be.”
Those three states are among the top 10 in COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths.
“Remember, this is a pandemic now of the unvaccinated,” Campbell said. “That means that greater than 96-97% of the people in the hospital and the people who are dying are unvaccinated.”
Campbell also cautioned against traveling during Labor Day Weekend, noting that people could become exposed and bring transmission back to their home communities.
“I think to protect everybody… I would say don’t travel over the Labor Day Weekend unless you absolutely have to,” he said. "You have to make sure you’re protected. Be careful. Mask up. The handwashing, the distancing, all those things that we know that work until everybody can get vaccinated.”
Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.