Children should keep masking up, CDC director says, even as some experts question the need

·National Correspondent
·5 min read
Rochelle Walensky
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Reuters).

WASHINGTON — Young children should continue to wear face masks, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said in congressional testimony on Wednesday, citing studies she says demonstrate that grade-school-age children can contract and spread the coronavirus.

“There’s still transmissions associated with young children,” Walensky said. “They have been vectors of transmission for older people.” (People who act as vectors spread a disease without necessarily becoming sick.)

A number of scientists point to research, however, that contradicts Walensky’s assertions. “What Rochelle Walensky said this morning is incorrect,” Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, told Yahoo News. “Children are not vectors.”

Just as Walensky was testifying on Capitol Hill before the House Appropriations Committee (she was there to explain her agency’s proposed budget, but faced many pandemic-related questions), Gandhi co-wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that described the risk of a child contracting the coronavirus from an infected person as .00007 percent. Outdoors, Gandhi and her co-authors found, the risk was a thousand times less than that, which is to say effectively nonexistent.

“We have sacrificed children on the altar of our fear,” Dr. Gandhi told Yahoo News. She described sending the article she’d co-written to the parents of her children’s friends, only to receive no response. The implication, Dr. Gandhi figured, was that those parents wanted their kids — and hers — to stay masked.

She said while the risk of the coronavirus to children has been exaggerated, their resilience in the face of Zoom school and other pandemic-related depredations has been overstated.

Students wearing masks
Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

Earlier this week, Children’s Hospital Colorado said it was declaring an emergency over the mental health of children. “Our kids have run out of resilience. Their tank is empty,” the hospital’s chief physician said.

In response to a query from Yahoo News about how Walensky had come to her conclusion about child-related coronavirus risks, a CDC spokesman sent the agency’s guidance on school-based transmission. That guidance links to several studies that show most children do not become infected with the coronavirus. For example, one study cited by the CDC found that “more than 90 percent” of childhood coronavirus cases in China in early 2020 were “asymptomatic, mild, or moderate.” Another, conducted in April 2020, found that of 149,082 coronavirus cases in the United States for which information on age was available, only 1.7 percent were children. “Three deaths were reported among the pediatric cases,” that study found.

“This document definitely does not support Dr. Walensky’s statement she made in Congress,” says Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a Stanford epidemiologist, who reviewed the guidance forwarded by the CDC at the request of Yahoo News. “I remain mystified by her statement.”

It was an exchange with Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler that focused partly on an op-ed by Bhattacharya in the Wall Street Journal that prompted Walensky’s defense of children wearing face masks.

The op-ed noted that the World Health Organization “recommends against masking children 5 and under and only tepidly recommends masking children between 6 and 11.” Bhattacharya also wrote that the “evidence is overwhelming that masking can harm children’s developmental progress.”

Gandhi of UCSF agrees. "It means something to see your teacher's face,” she says.

Herrera Beutler has made childhood masking something of a pet cause this week, questioning Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top science adviser to the Biden administration, on the practice on Tuesday. She told Walensky it was unfair for children to bear “the isolation burden” of the pandemic, even as adult life returns to normal.

“I have three kids myself. One has been home all year,” Walensky told Herrera Beutler. “I understand the challenge. I deeply understand the challenge.”

Two students with their teacher
Two students with their teacher at the Dorchester YMCA in Boston, Sept. 10, 2020. (Lane Turner/Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, the CDC said that vaccinated people no longer have to wear face mask. And though adolescents may now receive the coronavirus vaccine, children under the age of 12 may not. Their inoculations won't be available until the end of the year, Fauci and others have predicted.

Current CDC guidance says that unvaccinated people should continue to wear masks indoors, as well as in most outdoor situations. Critics say that guidance does not take into account that children appear to be largely impervious to the coronavirus. Researchers aren’t entirely sure why that’s the case, though Gandhi believes it could be because of their nasal environments.

And since about half of American adults are now vaccinated, the risk of one becoming ill by coming into contact with a virus-carrying child would appear to be low. Unvaccinated adults who adhere to CDC rules by wearing masks would also have a high level of protection, given the high effectiveness of face coverings in filtering out viral particles.

The CDC is “slow, political, reactionary, scientifically unreliable,” says Dr. Marty Makary, a Johns Hopkins oncologist who has advocated for a speedier lifting of restrictions. At the same time, when the CDC announced that masks were no longer required for fully vaccinated people, others accused Walensky of moving too quickly.

Many kids are about to head to summer camp for the first time since 2019; many of them will have to do so in masks. Then there will come the issue of masking in school, and whether districts make that a requirement.

“I believe we should be in a position for no masks in school,” says Brown economist Emily Oster, who writes frequently on pandemic parenting. “Europe has not had kids in masks — especially younger kids — in school at all, without lots of spread.”

The United Kingdom, which has some of the highest vaccination rates in the world, said earlier this month that masks were no longer required for children in classrooms.

“Wearing a mask during lessons has been one of many sacrifices children have made over the last year in our fight against the pandemic, and I know they will welcome this latest step towards a return to normal school life,” a British official in charge of childhood welfare policy said.

When the United States will follow suit is not clear, but Walensky says the agency is reviewing guidance for camps and other settings.

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