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No Masks In Schools? USF Pediatrics Chair Says It May Be Too Soon

Dr. Patricia Emmanuel says once children 12 and older are able to get vaccinated in the coming months, that will be a "game-changer" for how schools proceed with coronavirus prevention measures.

In mid-April, Florida's education commissioner urged schools to abandon mandatory mask policies in the fall, saying district face-covering policies do not impact the spread of the coronavirus.

Dr. Patricia Emmanuel, chair of pediatrics at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine, said an edict like that for the entire state may be premature. She spoke about the issue with WUSF's Kerry Sheridan.

 Dr. Patricia Emmanuel
The Florida Channel
Dr. Patricia Emmanuel

As you know, state education commissioner Richard Corcoran has said broad, sweeping mandatory face-covering policies serve no remaining good in our schools, and he says he has the data to back that up. What do you think of that statement?

Well, I am a little concerned. As you probably are aware right now Florida is seeing numbers that are not insignificant. We have about a nine percent positivity rate, at least in Hillsborough County. For our positive tests, and children under 18, it's 17% positivity rate. So, we have no vaccinations for anyone under 16 years of age, and really no opportunity to realize those until hopefully the late fall. So, I think it's a little premature to make those kind of broad sweeping statements about the entire state at this point.

How important are masks in your view going forward? Should they be mandatory or voluntary?

I think that masks are a really important mitigation measure. They have been one of the key public health pillars through this epidemic, and they and they have worked. There is data that they do work, and children have adapted to them.

There are challenges. And there are certainly exceptions. And I think that schools have worked hard to try to adapt around those. I think that local communities should really help drive those decisions based on the data -- positivity rate, what percent of folks are vaccinated, what strains are around?

Masks (are) kind of a low hanging fruit, really, because it's become so politically controversial. It is really not.

We have seen low transmission inside schools. Could that mostly be because schools require masks?

One thing we know is that having the schools open for in-person learning has worked well in Florida. And we have been very fortunate. Our schools have worked very hard to create policies that make sense locally, based on the local epidemiology, based on the capacities at schools, what the environment looks like. And they've worked with their local public health departments to help create these policies, and they've done a great job.

And I think across the board that the commissioner’s statement about (how) many of the infections were not in-school transmission is correct. Many of the clusters of infections occurred with outside activities, whether it's a baby shower that teachers go to, or a sports activity that students attend. So they haven't occurred in school, per se. They've been more related to kind of social activities. And we also know that as rates of infection in communities go up, that the rates of the number of positive cases in the schools go up.

I do think that the schools’ (success has) been partially because they have adhered to the key guidelines. How many times have we heard the same guidelines from the CDC, from the NIH about masking, social distancing, hand hygiene? Schools have worked so hard to try to follow those guidelines.

Another part is that younger children probably are not the transmitters the way they are for other viral infections, like influenza, for example. Children over 12 do transmit, similar to adults, but the younger children maybe are not the vectors that they normally are of infectious diseases for this, for COVID.

When it comes to doing away with a mask mandate, what kinds of research would you want to see to say, indeed, we don’t need masks anymore?

One area that we talked about is if we can get great immunity, you know if we can get most adults vaccinated, and if we can get the beginnings of some (children) — if we can get 12 and above, for example — if we can get the Pfizer vaccine Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for 12 years of age and above, you know, then we can really start to be thinking about these conversations.

I think those are some of the benchmarks that we want to look at -- vaccination, herd immunity, and then what's happening with the evolution of the virus and with the positivity rate in our local community.

And how long do you think it might be before 12 and up might be able to get the vaccine?

The way that happens is Pfizer has already released that data and sent it to the FDA. They have to have a meeting of the Committee on Immunization, that data has to get reviewed, and there has to be a public hearing, which I think will occur sometime in May.

I think the Johnson and Johnson vaccine pause probably delayed it just a bit. But I don't know that for sure. But I would assume this is going to happen in May. And apparently the data looks very good. And so then the FDA will grant an emergency authorization. It could be this summer. We're preparing for this summer, which would be great, then I think the conversation about schools, you know, evolves.

Because if we can get our 12 and ups (vaccinated) that have been the major drivers of the infection, or even 16 and above more than the younger children -- it will be a game-changer for our communities.

And then the question becomes, can schools mandate children get the vaccine in order to not wear a mask at school? What do you think about that?

I think that you've heard our governor feel strongly about how we are not mandating vaccine. I think it is a challenge. I agree that it is probably not appropriate to mandate a vaccine that is still under emergency authorization, there needs to be an FDA approval.

And the decision to mandate vaccines for schools actually goes through a pretty vigorous process at the federal level. And so I think that process should (and) can be done. I don't think there should be a quick mandate. I think parents and children need to choose and learn for themselves. I mean, I strongly advocate it. I got mine. All my children are now on their way. They're older. But I don't foresee that there will be a mandate to get vaccine for school entry.

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Kerry Sheridan is a reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media.