Pandemic of the unvaccinated: Local health experts weigh in on new pediatric mask guidance

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(WETM/NBC News) – COVID-19 infections are on the rise in all 50 U.S. states as the delta variant continues to spread. The American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday responded to the rise in cases, recommending that all children over the age of two wear masks when returning to school this year, regardless of vaccination status.

The AAP, which said it is important for children to return to in-person learning this year, recommends that school staff also wear masks. The AAP is calling the new guidance a “layered approach.”

“We need to prioritize getting children back into schools alongside their friends and their teachers — and we all play a role in making sure it happens safely,” said Sonja O’Leary, chair of the AAP Council on School Health. “Combining layers of protection that include vaccinations, masking, and clean hands hygiene will make in-person learning safe and possible for everyone.”

Local health experts agree masks are the best tool to protect unvaccinated individuals, especially children. As the delta variant continues to spread rapidly, health experts suggest following the basic health protocols that originated when the pandemic began last year: masking, distancing, and hand washing.

“We may take the stance to say, ‘Oh, well COVID-19 isn’t so bad amongst the children,’ but then you see a new variant come about and it could lead to more infections,” Dr. Justin Nistico, infectious disease expert at Arnot Health, added.

Creating an effective protocol for children in school is key to getting children back into the classroom some doctors say. Last year, at-home learning exposed many disparities and in order to level the playing field, many believe students need to be at school.

“The masks are tools to be used to make sure that kids remain in school this coming fall,” Dr. Jennifer Nayak, professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester, added.

Teachers are among those on the front lines with students, who understand the limitations in the classroom. Some believe masks should be required in order to keep children, teachers, staff, and families safe.

“There is not an opportunity to really socially distance children, especially if we are in a full session. I do worry about my students. I worry about my students’ families,” Dora Leland, a seventh-grade teacher in the Horseheads School District, said.

The AAP said universal masking is necessary because much of the student population is not vaccinated, and it’s hard for schools to determine who is as new variants emerge that might spread more easily among children.

Children 12 and over are eligible for Covid-19 vaccinations in the U.S. And the FDA said last week that emergency authorization for vaccines for children under 12 could come in early to midwinter.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the president, said on CNN Monday that the guidance makes sense.

“When you have a degree of viral dynamics in the community, and you have a substantial proportion of the population that is unvaccinated, that you really want to go the extra step, the extra mile to make sure that there’s not a lot of transmissions, even breakthrough infections among vaccinated individuals,” he said.

Universal masking will also protect students and staff from other respiratory illnesses that could keep kids out of school, the AAP said.

The AAP also said that campers should wear masks during indoor activities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended this month that vaccinated students do not have to wear masks in classrooms.

What has not changed is guidance for children under the age of 2, which says it is dangerous for newborns and infants to wear masks because they can pose a suffocation risk, and babies and toddlers may try to remove them, actually increasing their chance of catching the virus.

All children should get caught up on vaccines they may have missed getting in the midst of the pandemic, like the flu shot, the AAP said.

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