Surgeon general defends masks in school, but says goal is to ‘pull back’ on restrictions
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Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy answered questions from the Senate Finance Committee dealing with youth mental health on Tuesday, and one subject that came up on more than one occasion was whether schools should require students to wear face masks to protect against COVID-19.
Sen. John Thune, RS.D., asked Murthy about the science behind masks in schools and whether it should be up to states or the federal government to decide what precautions to require.
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“What we know… is that masks are a helpful tool to help reduce the spread of the virus,” Murthy said, defending the concept of using masks in schools. “When we look at schools in fact that have masking there is less spread and there are in fact fewer school closures as a result of there being less spread of the infection.”
At the same time, Murthy acknowledged that “no parent would want to mask if it’s not needed,” and he said the country should work on moving away from that in a responsible manner.
“I think our goal should be – is to get to a place where we can pull back on these types of restrictions… as quickly as possible and as safely as possible,” he said. “And in that process there will be, I think, a very important role that states and localities play in tailoring the approach based on their individual community circumstances.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., Also addressed masks in schools and school closures, pointing to a recent meta-analysis published by Johns Hopkins University that found that lockdown measures and “non-pharmaceutical interventions” including school closures and mask mandates “had little to no effect on COVID-19 mortality. “
Cassidy asserted that the study supported the idea that the costs of these measures have outweighed the gains.
“Clearly we’ve seen that children suffered,” Cassidy said, referring to learning loss and a lack of detection of children’s problems as a result of school closures.
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Murthy admitted that “we’ve learned a lot during this pandemic,” and that some of the “blunt measures” utilized early on like taking students out of the classroom “did have significant harms” on children, including his own.
“We should do everything possible to keep our schools open,” Murthy said.
Cassidy asked if that meant even during a testing shortage like what the country has faced in recent months. Murthy said it would be different if teachers did not feel that it was safe for them to go in.
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Cassidy blamed the federal government for any such feeling, arguing that they need to do a better job of getting the message out that it is OK to go to school.
“Doesn’t it seem wise that the federal government be consistent in its message to those teachers?” he asked. “Like a clear bell ringing, the single, single note is you can safely go back to school and the cost benefit ratio favors being in? Because you certainly get mixed messages from the federal government.”