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Report: 70% of elementary school students may be infected with COVID-19 within three months without masks

Pinar Keskinocak, William W. George Chair and Professor in the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Georgia Tech, joins Yahoo Finance to discuss her recent research on the impacts of masking and vaccines on the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

Video Transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: Emily, we're going to turn our attention back to kids going back to school, but also COVID-19 and protecting kids, teachers, school staff. Let's bring into the stream two important folk. We've got Pinar Keskinocak, the William W. George Chair and Professor in the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Georgia Tech, and our own Reggie Wade, who is a former teacher and now a journalist with us at Yahoo Finance.

Reggie, you cover schools for us. You just had the special on getting back to class. Why don't you take the lead on this interview?

REGGIE WADE: Thank you very much. And professor, welcome to Yahoo Finance. You've come out with several of your colleagues with a study that shows an additional 70% of elementary school students may be infected with COVID-19 within three months if their schools don't have adequate masking policies. I have to ask you, do you believe that it was safer to start schools virtually than doing it while coinciding with the rise in the delta variant?

PINAR KESKINOCAK: So thank you, Reggie, for having me here. Maybe it would be good for us to start a little bit with some of the facts that we know right now and what motivated our study. So almost 160,000 new COVID cases have been reported on August 19. So COVID is not over as much as we would like it to be.

Delta variant is very contagious. Unfortunately, younger people are getting infected at a higher rate than what we have observed before, and they're also getting sicker compared to what we have observed during the earlier months of the pandemic. COVID-related hospitalizations are on the rise for all age groups and unfortunately going up at a high rate for the zero to 17 age group, for kids.

So we have about half of the US population vaccinated, maybe close to 60% at least one dose. But younger children are not eligible for the vaccine yet. And even if you look at the 12 to 17 age group, the vaccination rates are still relatively low. So in Georgia my home state, we have about 20% of the 11- to 13-year-old children who are vaccinated. These are middle schoolers. But this is definitely not enough to give us the kind of protection that we would need.

So these are some of the facts that motivated our study. And you asked the question whether we should have been safer to open virtual. I would say it depends. With the right interventions, right precautions, we might be able to open the schools safely and give that in-person experience to our children. But we have to do it right.

REGGIE WADE: Professor, we see what's going on in Texas and in Florida school boards having disputes with their governors over vaccine and mask mandates. Have you advised any of these school boards? And if not, what advice would you give them going forward to this year?

PINAR KESKINOCAK: Yeah. I think it's really important for any decision maker to base their decisions on data, information, and advice coming from the experts. So none of us would attempt a brain surgery unless we were trained as a brain surgeon. When it comes to some of these public health decisions, it's not that dissimilar. These are very, very complex decisions, and they need to be made very carefully.

Now, CDC recommends that schools implement layered prevention strategies, including universal masking for staff, teachers, visitors, and of course, all the students ages two years and older, regardless of their vaccination status. So I think this recommendation is very clear, and I would hope that most of the school systems and decision makers would actually follow this recommendation.

And this is one of the things that we looked at in our research to look at the impacts of schools following this recommendation and possibly expanding it with other things, such as testing and isolation, versus going back-- having children go back to school without any intervention as if COVID does not exist, which is what we are seeing, unfortunately, in some schools.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Are you hearing any kind of indication when children under the age of 12 may begin to be eligible for this vaccine? And how young will that go? Will it go down to two-year-olds?

PINAR KESKINOCAK: So we are-- many of us are, of course, eagerly awaiting for news about the vaccine to be approved for younger children. And of course, that age group is more complicated because there is a big variance in terms of their body weight and immune system and other things about the children in that age group. It's a pretty large group and large variation, so that's why I think researchers are taking this very carefully to make sure that the vaccines are safe for the children and also give the protection.

So hopefully in the coming months, the vaccine will be approved for younger age groups. But in the meantime, it's very important for us to apply these layered interventions. So, for example, what we found in our research, that more than 70% of susceptible student population might be infected by the end of semester if we do not put in place some serious interventions.

So masking, of course, is key, as well as regular testing of students would help with isolation, of course. But even with testing, if you do not have masking in place, we could still have more than 50% of the susceptible students infected by the end of the semester. So this is very serious, and I think that's why we really need these multilayered interventions in the schools to protect our children.

- I'm wondering, if cases do start to rise at a given school where it gets to that point of 50%, 70% of students getting infected, what does the data suggest about that threshold for deciding if and when a school should go back to virtual learning or implement more stringent restrictions?

PINAR KESKINOCAK: Yeah. So the 50% to 70% numbers, I'm basically quoting cumulative for the end of the semester, right? So for example, you might see only a handful of students being infected in a given week. We actually ran some scenarios where we said, OK, maybe to begin with, we have about 2% to 3% of incoming students have had the infection and then maybe one new infection is coming from outside, not transmitted inside the school but coming from outside weekly.

Even this low level of transmission can actually cause a fairly large number of students being infected by the end of the semester if there are no serious interventions in place. This is because, in part, again, we don't have the vaccines protecting the children, and also because the delta variant that is the dominant one that we see right now in the US is very contagious. It's much, much more contagious than what we have seen with the earlier cases earlier in the beginning of the pandemic.

I think all of this put together, you know, makes this a very serious situation, which requires some serious prevention action from the schools.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Dr. Pinar Keskinocak, thank you so much. Reggie Wade, as always, good to see you.