Fall 2023: Mask Mandates for Students Amidst COVID-19 and Latest Variant Concerns


Ambassador Deborah Birx, MD, discusses whether students should be required to wear masks to protect themselves and others and what the public should know about the newest COVID-19 variant, B.A.2.86.

As students return to school, a crucial question arises: Should they be required to wear masks? The answer to this question, like many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, is complex and depends on various factors.

To get some insight, Infection Control Today® (ICT®) spoke with Ambassador Deborah Birx, MD, a highly respected American physician and public health expert who has played a pivotal role in the field of global health and infectious diseases. Throughout her distinguished career, Birx has made significant contributions to the fight against HIV/AIDS and has been at the forefront of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Birx was appointed as the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator on the US Coronavirus Task Force. In this role, she played a key part in guiding the nation's response to the pandemic, providing valuable insights and data-driven recommendations to mitigate the virus spread

The effectiveness of vaccines in providing long-term protection against infection is limited. Additionally, natural immunity acquired through previous infection also wanes relatively quickly. This raises concerns about the vulnerability of children under 18 in the school system, where close contact and the exchange of saliva are common occurrences. However, now “we have tools to treat people who are at risk,” Birx told ICT. “ And we have tools in the vaccines to ensure that the teachers who are vulnerable are actively immunized so that we don't have to worry about if they get infected [that] they're at risk.”

The key question is whether masks should be mandatory for students. The consensus is that vulnerable children should wear masks during waves or surges of COVID-19 cases. The decision should be informed by local data and community circumstances. Well-fitted masks, including N95s, offer a level of protection that is especially crucial for vulnerable children.

Furthermore, it's important to foster understanding among students and their families. Rather than assuming that mask-wearing is a political statement, it should be seen as a matter of personal safety and consideration for others. “I have a great respect for people who proactively mitigate during a surge…to protect their family members. And we should see that as a point of personal empowerment and respect for others, particularly that they may have people at home at risk,” Birx said.

Timely communication from public health agencies, like the CDC, is crucial. They must provide specific, localized guidelines based on the status of the virus in each community. This information empowers individuals to make informed decisions about their safety.

Newest Variant, B.A.286

It's important not to underestimate BA.2.86 potential impact. This variant, while a distant relative of Omicron, carries mutations that make it just as concerning in terms of its ability to infect individuals and potentially evade immunity.

Global surveillance efforts are designed to identify and study variants that pose a risk to public health. If a variant is identified as potentially problematic, action should be taken promptly. This includes developing and producing updated vaccines if necessary. The mRNA vaccine technology allows for rapid adjustments to vaccines, ensuring that we can stay ahead of evolving variants.

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