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Public health experts say lift of Louisiana mask mandate is 'premature'

Aubri Juhasz
PreK students work on a literacy lesson at KIPP Central City Primary. Oct. 2, 2020.

After Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Tuesday that masks would not be required in most places statewide except in certain schools, some public health experts said not only should masks remain mandatory in all schools, but it’s too soon for the rest of the state to take them off.

The lift won’t apply to schools who don’t enforce the Centers for Disease Control’s quarantine guidelines, residents who live in a parish that keeps a mask mandate in effect and places that have federally-mandated mask rules, such as healthcare facilities and public transportation.

“I think it's premature,” said Susan Hassig, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Tulane University. “There's just too much virus, there's too many opportunities for people to get exposed and infected.”

Susanne Straif-Bourgeois, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Louisiana State University, agreed. “We’re not there yet,” she said.

Both said the state’s low vaccination rates are an ongoing weakness in ending the pandemic.

While 66% of Americans have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, that figure drops to 53.6% in Louisiana.

And it varies widely across the state. In southwest Louisiana, only 35% of people have received at least one shot. That rises only slightly to between 38% and 40% of people in the entire northern part of the state.

Hassig said vaccinations would need to reach at least 70% of the population for it to be safe to drop public health measures, including masking. Straif-Bourgeois put the figure at 70% to 80%

But there are other concerns: The fact that previous dips in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been followed by surges, often worse than the last. Hassig noted that the holiday season is coming, a time of year that could very well see an uptick in COVID-19 if it’s anything like last year’s winter.

And variants are still a possibility — the delta variant began to spread during the early summer, just weeks after Edwards lifted the previous mask mandate for schools after dropping it for the rest of state.

“Maintaining it now would help us perhaps avert or mediate, or moderate, the next surge,” Hassig said.

That is, if people actually wear their masks. Hassig and other public health experts have argued that the main reason the delta surge began to wane in September was because it began to run out of enough people to infect — and not because of a mask mandate haphazardly followed across the state.

Still, masks help both the vaccinated and unvaccinated, since breakthrough cases have always been possible with the vaccines, Hassig said. Natural immunity appears to wane within two or three months, she added, meaning that thousands of people infected during the summer could be more susceptible to contract COVID-19 when winter approaches.

Public health officials also see masks as a crucial tool to keep kids safe, since so few are vaccinated, and young children aren’t yet eligible to get the shot.

Statewide, only about one-third of children ages 12 to 17 are vaccinated, and the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are still weighing the approval of the Pfizer and BioNTech shot for those ages 5 to 11. The latter agency's advisory panel recommended the jab for the age group after Louisiana's mask mandate was lifted.

Without a mask mandate in schools, Straif-Bourgeois expects to see an up-tick in cases. “There's no doubt about it,” she said.

Edwards reimposed the state’s mask mandate in early August just in time for the start of the 2021-22 school year. While several school district leaders bemoaned the governor’s decision at the time, they ultimately said they would enforce it and urged parents and students to comply. But the return of the mandate resulted in parent protests and a statement from state Attorney General Jeff Landry, who said the decision should be left up to individual districts.

School districts now face a new choice: at the very least, they must either mandate masks or mandate quarantines.

The Louisiana Department of Education’s (LDOE) “parent choice” option, which was announced in late September, lets school districts decide whether to enforce quarantine standards set by CDC or let parents choose whether or not their child should quarantine following a suspected classroom exposure.

At the time, Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley argued quarantines had become an unnecessary impediment to in-person instruction, while some school leaders argued they posed an undue burden on staff.

“We can no longer ignore the unintended academic consequences of our students unnecessarily missing school,” Brumley said in a statement announcing the policy change. “This new, common-sense option empowers parents and local communities with the authority to make health-related decisions for their students.”

It was seen by many as an abrupt flip flop and criticized by public health and education experts across the state, including the state’s school board, but some districts still decided to do away with required quarantines.

West Baton Rouge Parish Public Schools is one of several districts that decided to relax its quarantine standards following LDOE's guidance. But starting Wednesday, Superintendent Wes Watts said in an email that masks will be optional for students and staff.

St. Tammany Parish Public Schools, another district with relaxed quarantine restrictions, will hold a special board meeting Wednesday to discuss the governor’s announcement. Calcasieu Parish Public Schools is in the same position and will likely hold a special board meeting later this week as well, a spokesperson said.

Masks will remain mandatory in New Orleans Public Schools due to the city’s own mandate. In a statement Tuesday, the district said it would continue to require masks inside its buildings, on school buses and during school-related events.

“Masks are a proven precaution against the spread of COVID-19, especially as we continue to wait for vaccines to become available for children under 12 and continue to encourage eligible older students and staff to get vaccinated as soon as possible,” NOLA Public Schools said in a statement.

The district has some of the most robust COVID-19 protocols in the state and continues to enforce CDC quarantine standards. Its surveillance testing program includes roughly 20,000 teachers and students, and less than 1% of tests have come back positive each week.

Last week, NOLA Public Schools logged 40 active COVID cases across 20 schools resulting in 304 quarantines. The majority of cases continue to be reported among elementary school students who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

Since the start of the school year, nearly 25,300 cases have been reported by K-12 schools statewide. In the most recent data reported to the state, nearly 800 cases were reported among students for the week of Oct. 11.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.
Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.

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