Oct. 22—Even as local school districts end mask mandates, the Alabama Department of Public Health is urging K-12 schools to leave universal masking in place to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks.
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Assistant State Health Officer Karen Landers, a pediatrician, on Wednesday said children should wear masks because of the high number of pediatric cases and the difficulty of maintaining social distance within schools.
"We're talking about an indoor setting. We're talking about kids being close together in a congregate setting for a period of time," Landers said. "Masks work. We need to keep this layer in place until such time as we have lower levels of community transmission, lower rates of percent positivity, and higher levels of vaccination."
Superintendent Michael Douglas said at a board meeting this week that Decatur City Schools will end its mask mandate Nov. 1, making masks optional.
Athens City Schools ended its mask mandate Monday, while Morgan County and Lawrence County schools ended theirs on Sept. 16 and Sept. 24 respectively. Hartselle City and Limestone County schools did not implement a mask mandate this school year.
"We need to urge those involved in the education of children to provide a safe, healthy learning environment while we bring this virus under control," Landers said.
Douglas said his plan to end the mask mandate Nov. 1 is based on the low number of cases transmitted within the schools.
"If 20 cases happen tomorrow but they were all from church and they were in no way connected, I wouldn't put masks on," Douglas said Thursday. "But if I had five cases where they were all in the same classroom, and those five kids got it from each other, then I would put the masks on."
Douglas said there is no specific number of in-school transmissions that would lead him to reinstate the mask mandate.
"If we feel the numbers are going up and we're giving it to each other, then we'll put the masks back on," he said.
Douglas said that if ADPH believes universal masking is essential, it should impose a statewide mandate.
"If the ADPH thinks it's that serious, then why aren't churches or restaurants required to wear masks?" Douglas said.
On Tuesday, ADPH issued a bulletin pushing for universal masking in schools. Recent studies by the CDC and the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report "found that school districts without universal masking policies in place were more likely to have COVID-19 outbreaks than other districts that did not implement mask policies," according to ADPH.
While his focus is on infections that take place within schools, Douglas said he would also consider resuming the mask mandate if he saw evidence of a spike in the Decatur community or Morgan County.
"We're definitely going to use common sense," Douglas said. "If it's active in our community and it's like it was at the beginning of the year, where not only were we seeing transmission in the school but the numbers were in the hundreds, well of course we're going to put masks on."
As of Thursday, Decatur Morgan Hospital had 26 patients with COVID-19. Eight of those patients were in intensive care, including seven on ventilators. That's a significant drop from a month ago, when Decatur Morgan had 69 COVID patients including 15 on ventilators.
Athens-Limestone Hospital had seven COVID patients Thursday, including one on a ventilator. A month ago, it had 23 COVID patients with four on ventilators.
As of Wednesday, Landers said, about 20% of those testing positive for COVID statewide were children under 17 years of age.
"We're almost double what we were in pediatric cases (last year)," Landers said. "Keep in mind COVID has found a place and it's with the pediatric population."
Forty-five percent of those eligible for a vaccine in Morgan County are fully vaccinated, according to ADPH data.
The Pfizer vaccine, currently approved for people ages 12 and up, could receive authorization within weeks for ages 5 to 11. Landers said the ADPH has begun preparation for distribution of the lower dose that would be used for the younger population.
Dr. Wes Stubblefield, a pediatrician and district medical officer for the Northeastern District of the ADPH, said he has vaccinated children in his practice.
"The good thing from when we vaccinated children is that they had very mild symptoms from the vaccine," Stubblefield said.
Along with Landers, Stubblefield said children should wear masks in schools and other congregate settings.
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