Are mask mandates effective?  Doctors debate new study - NBC Boston

Are mask mandates effective? Doctors debate new study – NBC Boston

A new study that found masks reduced the spread of COVID-19 in Boston-area schools provides new data for the long-running pandemic debate over school mask mandates.

The study, published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, examines what happened when Boston and Chelsea school districts kept their mask mandates for 15 weeks after Massachusetts dropped the requirement. in February. The researchers determined that these cities averted about 45 COVID cases per 1,000 students and staff, based on COVID rates from the other 70 school districts in the Greater Boston area.

While there’s no debate among Boston’s top doctors about the effectiveness of masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19, experts in the field continue to disagree on whether to wear masks in schools.

During NBC10 Boston Weekly “COVID Q&A” series, Tufts Medical Center Hospital epidemiologist Dr. Shira Doron argued that requiring masks can negatively impact families, while Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dr. David Hamer from Boston Medical Center countered that they could be used as a tool to avoid missing school.

The observational study was conducted by researchers from several Boston institutions: Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Boston Public Health Commission, Boston University, Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

β€œSchool districts could use these results to develop equitable mitigation plans in anticipation of a possible winter surge of Covid-19 in the 2022-2023 school year, as well as clear decision thresholds for removing masks. as the wave decreases,” the researchers concluded.

When Massachusetts lifted the school mask mandate in February, like most other states in the country, “it wasn’t because anyone was saying masks don’t work,” Doron said. “It’s because there are downsides and the virus is here to stay.”

The consensus among public health experts at the time, Doron recalled, was that they could either determine if there was enough immunity in the population to remove the mandate, or students could continue to wear masks. indefinitely.

Ultimately, the cost of putting children through the challenges that come with masking does not outweigh the benefits of keeping case numbers low at this point, Doron said, referring to his experience as a advisor to state government, private and public schools and youth sports camps. .

“For me, it’s not about, you know, does this study prove that masks work? I think masks work,” Doron said. “But given everything I’ve seen, it would be hard for you to convince me that making masks compulsory in school again is the right thing to do.”

Doron recalled parents, students, teachers, and administrators telling him that masks affect socialization and language learning, especially for people with speech disabilities, hearing impairment, and those who are neurodivergent. Doron, who has always opposed mask mandates in schools during regular appearances on the “COVID Q&A” series, added that students would inevitably miss part of school due to respiratory viruses. In his mind, the focus should be on preventing serious hospitalizations and deaths, not preventing positive PCR tests.

Both Hamer and Kuritzkes agreed with the idea that mask mandates can impact student development. However, Hamer noted, losing more time in school β€” or teachers having more sick days β€” can also have a negative impact on student development.

“I think it’s a delicate balance,” Hamer said, pointing to the drop in student test scores during the pandemic. “I think school closures are a really bad thing. Opening schools and having masks, you know, if needed, might not be such a bad thing. But closing them is really a problem.”

Although many young people tend to have mild cases of COVID-19, Hamer said, they are still bound to miss a certain number of school days if they test positive.

Kuritzkes questioned whether there is enough evidence to support that “even a substantial minority” of children are affected by mask mandates.

“There’s no question that masks work. So it’s not a medical science discussion anymore. It’s a political discussion,” Kuritzkes said. “And it’s about the needs and wants of different groups of people and whose wants and needs come first.”

Some study-related variables raised questions for Doron, including that students and staff were not actively screened for infection and that the state’s surveillance testing program was very different from a school. to the other.

But Kuritzkes described the paper as an “incredibly strong study”. Research shows that during the first wave of omicron, when Massachusetts saw an increase in cases, the increase in schools was “a blip.”

“It was only after the masks were removed that you saw a substantial increase,” Kuritzkes said. “It also happened at a time when very few school-age children were being vaccinated, certainly not younger children as it only became available later in the season. And so the only prevailing immunity would have been immunity to prior COVID infection, which was not as prevalent at that time in the younger population as it later became.”

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