Like many of you who do the grocery shopping in your family, I’ve been wondering whether I need to start wearing a mask again. Kroger is by far the most crowded indoor place I go, but at the same time, I want to trust the science of COVID-19 vaccination, and let’s face it, masks are annoying.
Then I see a statistic like the one from the Fayette County Public Health Department about new cases caused by the Delta variant: Almost 20 percent of new COVID cases are in children aged 5-17. In July, that’s 189 cases, up 500 percent from June.
Then I’m ready to plaster that thing all over my face because the only thing I know for sure is that our kids need to go back to school in person and as a parent, I’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.
And when the governor announced his recommendation for universal K-12 masking on Thursday, it made sense. Kids under 12 can’t get vaccinated, and if they start spreading the virus around, that means quarantines for parents and students, and maybe even closed schools. Places with high vaccination rates, like New England, don’t have to make these kinds of choices, at least not yet.
Unlike Jefferson County, which has already announced a universal K-12 mask mandate, Fayette County is once again keeping people in suspense. Poor Superintendent Demetrus Liggins, the first week on the job, and faced with this as his first big decision. On one side, the Let Them Learn parents, who did a good job in pushing the district to reopen schools, but seem equally passionate about not wearing masks, and on the other, the governor, the county and state public health commissioners, the CDC and the American Association of Pediatrics.
Because these are recommendations and the actual rules have to be made at the local district level, Kentucky will no doubt be starting a giant, statewide science experiment about what happens when science meets politics, played out in real time. Some state workers will have to wear masks; some others, the ones who work for gubernatorial candidates, will not. (At least Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles and Sen. Mitch McConnell are pushing vaccinations.)
Some school districts will require masks, some will not.
“We’re likely to end up with patchwork around the state,” state Education Commissioner Jason Glass told me. “We’re introducing new variables with unmasked, unvaccinated students. It’s a gamble that some school districts think they will take mostly out of pressure from communities not to mask.
“I understand people are tired and frustrated, but I do think it’s a calculated gamble that districts would be taking,” Glass said. “We’ve shown we can operate in person safely, but we did it with layers of virus mitigation — now we’re going back with some peeling back some of the most effective parts of that.”
But that brings us to another calculated gamble: What’s the percentage of public school teachers and staff who are vaccinated? We know about the low rates at nursing homes because the federal government requires that reporting. We put school personnel at the top of the vaccination list because that was the best way to keep kids in school and keep schools open. The public should get to know if that deal was kept on both sides.
To that end, Republican consultant and vaccine advocate Tres Watson had a good idea: Instead of putting people in a lottery for getting vaccinated, create a pool of money that rewards schools that hit 100 vaccination rates among staff. That way, we encourage vaccinations, along with more transparency about our kids’ schools.
“Shaming is not working, the appeal to science is not working, the shot in a million is not working,” Watson said. But we have to protect elementary school kids, “because they cannot protect themselves.”
Because if it’s a pain to wear a mask now, it’s going to be a much bigger one when COVID mutates beyond the help of a vaccine, putting everyone at risk. The Washington Post printed an especially heart-rending piece by an Alabama virologist Michael Saag: “My fellow health-care workers are being thrown back into the fire, like servicemen and women going back for a third tour of duty in a war zone,” he wrote. “This week alone, one infectious-disease colleague and four ER physicians, all fully vaccinated, have become ill with the variant. This is very different from what we experienced before. Delta is different.”
Delta is different, and the variants that come beyond it might be even worse. So please do our children a favor, get vaccinated, wear a mask and help end what seems to be turning into our longest national nightmare.