Mask up, vaccinate, assess and readjust

School mask policy should reflect current COVID risk

Sometimes ocean waves are gentle and lap at your ankles. They might cause you to lose your balance and trip, but never fall. Other times, those waves will slam against you, slap you to the rough sandy ocean bottom and hold you there, all the while continuing to batter your shoulders, your back, your head, over and over while you try desperately to stand again. The spread of COVID-19 is a lot like those waves. Last year we saw many months when the case count merely simmered, low and gentle enough to make many of us hope that we were finally seeing the light at the end of the very long proverbial tunnel. Today we are being slapped, battered, beaten as the case count in Alabama, the state with the lowest vaccination rates in the nation, is seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases that is filling emergency rooms and physician’s offices around the state. Currently Baldwin County has a positive test rate of 22 percent and is considered one of the most vulnerable places in the state. Despite these numbers, last week Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Eddie Tyler announced that schools will return with no COVID-19 protocols in place. Some parents hailed him as a hero in Facebook posts. Others wrung their hands and wondered if their children needed to skip yet another year of school to be safe. Neither is the correct response. COVID-19 infections ebb and flow, much like ocean waves. We saw this in action during the past school year. After Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, the case counts were high. During many other parts of the school year, they were not. The end of the school year saw transmission rates so low that the masks were able to come off permanently. That was a good day. But currently, as Americans crisscross the nation for vacations that they skipped last year and visit far flung friends and family, the transmission rates have skyrocketed in every single state and the Delta variant is proving deadly for the unvaccinated. Among the largest group of unvaccinated people are children ages 12 and under. They can’t be vaccinated. And while rates are up, they need to wear masks. This should include in our schools. We agree, students ages 12 and up, roughly seventh grade and older should not be asked to mask. They and their parents have the right to make the decision to take or not take the vaccine. But grades K – 6 have no such luxury. The vaccine is not available to them yet. And as responsible stewards of their health and future, we should require that COVID-19 protocols reflect the current rate of spread. For now, that means masks on. We suggest that the Baldwin County School system take the advice of our local medical professionals, quoted on today’s front page. “This pandemic is fluid and changes quickly. Health care providers and government officials need to be open to adapting to what is actually happening rather than making predictions about how we want it to unfold,” said Daren Scroggie, M.D., VP/CMIO Infirmary Health Associate Program Director Internal Medicine Residency at Thomas Hospital. Two weeks. Give us two weeks with masks on to let any bits of the virus that might hitch a ride to school time to dissipate rather than spread. Just two weeks to let our community settle into the routine of a normal school day, let the vacationers head out of town and the transmission rates simmer to a quiet, lapping, manageable low tide. Then, if the numbers have improved, take the masks off. Otherwise, we may open the doors that first day of school and realize we’ve not just let the wave in, we’ve welcomed a tsunami of pediatric cases with open arms.