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home : opinion : e-opinion January 20, 2022

9/24/2021 1:07:00 PM
To Mask Or Not To Mask

Wayne Howard

The decision of the Lincoln County Board of Education last week to end its mask mandate and to make masks optional effective September 29th continues to be a topic of much discussion.

Lincoln County Health Director Davin Madden, who spoke to the school board last Tuesday (Sept. 14th) prior to their approval of Heather Rhyne's motion to make masks optional, sent a letter to the schools this Wednesday (Sept. 22nd) in which he doesn't specifically say they should reinstate a mask mandate but he does suggest that they reconsider in light of continued increasing numbers of cases, especially among school age population.  CLICK HERE to read Madden's letter.

The schools responded (indirectly) by issuing a news release Friday morning that indicates they will comply with the requirements of the StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit requirements.  Previously, based on the motion adopted last week, the schools were going to quarantine only those who test positive for the virus.    That change in policy drew concern from the NC Dept. of Health & Human Services.  On Monday, the Union County Schools, who have been 'masks optional' since the school year began, reversed a similar decision and said they would continue to quarantine exposed students.  Lincoln County Schools news release on Friday says:

"Based on guidance issued Monday from NCDHHS and after receiving written control measures from the Lincoln County Health Department, Lincoln County Schools will exclude students and staff from school that are considered close contacts with a COVID-19 positive person per the control measures written by the Lincoln County Health Department. Lincoln County Schools will continue to report positive COVID-19 cases to the local health department and exclude positive or symptomatic students and staff as required by law. Masks will be optional effective September 29, 2021 per the Board of Education’s vote at the September 14th meeting. The Board of Education will continue to vote on masks at each regular monthly meeting throughout the 2021-2022 school year as required by state law.

"Lincoln County Schools is thankful for the continued coordination and cooperation between The Lincoln County Health Department and Lincoln County Schools as we all move forward together to fight COVID-19 in Lincoln County."

Perhaps it's time that someone told the whole truth about mask mandates and explained why they don't really work.  

As a very knowledgeagle epidemiologist whose opinion and advice I follow is fond of saying, "the cloth (or paper) masks that most people (school kids included) are wearing aren't very effective."  He provides an analogy that makes sense.  When cars first got seat belts in the 1960s, it was better than nothing.  Those seat belts probably save a good number of lives.  But they in no way compare to today's vehicles with seat belts and shoulder harnesses, airbags, shatter-proof windshields and on many newer cars, sensors that actually stop the vehicle to avoid a front-end collision.  

The cloth masks are helpful in keeping an infected person from spreading the virus.  Compare it, if you will, to holding your hand in front of your mouth and nose when you sneeze.  They keep some of your exhaled breath from spreadinq quite as far.  Unfortunately, they do very little to protect the wearer.

N95 and KN95 masks are designed to block in both directions.  There are N95 masks which have a valve for exhalation; they don't block exhaled breath and while they do protect the wearer, they won't prevent spreading the virus to others.  There are also KF94 respirators that are also far better than the cloth masks.  It's not an absolute, but the N95s are mostly made in the US, the KN95s in China, and the KF04s in Korea.  You may have read somewhere that N95s are not approved for children.  That was true when they were used mostly for medical workers, but there are N95, KN95 and KF94 masks now that are suitable for children as young as four.  

School Board member Todd Wulfhorst said something very important and very telling at the August 10th school board meeting.  He said, "If I understand the  StrongSchoolsNC Toolkit correctly, if we go masks optional and two kids are sitting close to each other and one tests positive, both have to be quarantined unless they are both wearing masks.  If they are, then only the one who tests positive has to be quarantined."  He was correct.

The 'masks optional' policy that goes into effect Wednesday (Sept. 29th) will likely mean more kids have to be quarantined according to the state guidelines.  

It's important to understand that the mask mandate ('masks required') doesn't necessarily cut the number of cases; it cuts the number who have to be quarantined.  Like a lot of govt. programs, it's meant to make things look better--it really does very little to protect children from getting COVID.  

One parent took it upon herself and with help and contributions from the communtiy managed to put air purifiers in all the classrooms at St. James Elementary School where her two children attend.  I understand that inspired by that effort, someone is attempting to do the same at Rock Springs School.  

Improving air quality and circulation is one of the most effective things that can be done to reduce the number of virus cases.  N95, KN95 and KF94 masks--properly worn, covering both the mouth and nose--is another.  

The most important thing that can be done is to tet more people vaccinated.  The vaccines aren't totally effective--there have been breakthrough cases of people who were fully vaccinated.  But the outcomes for those peope is much, much better in most cases than for the unvaccinated.

It is true that there are some cases of side effects from the vaccines, but they are a small percentage of the total number of vaccinations.  It is also true that we don't yet know the long-term effects of the vaccines--but we also don't know he long-term effects of COVID.  Until just the last several years, we didn't know that your childhood case of chicken pox could cause you to have shingles in your later years.    The numbers (and I don't think every hospital in NC and in America is lying) are strong evidence that it makes good sense to get vaccinated.

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