Masks must at school till Feb-end as California readies ‘endemic’ plan



As California’s health officials prepare to deal with the novel coronavirus as an endemic threat, the state’s indoor mask mandate, which ends Feb 15 for vaccinated adults, will remain in force for schoolchildren at least until Feb 28, Dr Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state’s Health & Human Services Agency, said.

The agency will make a fresh recommendation for schoolchildren Feb 28 after evaluating factors such as pediatric Covid-19 hospital admissions, test positivity rates and case rates, ABC7 reported.

An epidemic disease reaches the endemic stage when the pathogen continues to exist and propagate itself but becomes manageable as the community’s immunity grows.

“In two weeks, confirming that the data continues to be where it is, taking the time to prepare and work with the school community and communities at large, we anticipate making the change,” Dr Ghaly said.

The secretary said California has 12 percent of all U.S. school students but has seen fewer than 1 percent of school closures in 2022.

Teachers backed the continued mask mandate for children. The California Teachers Association said it “support(s) the administration’s decision to pause and gather more information”. California Federation of Teachers president Jeff Freitas said, “(Teachers have) just emerged from the Omicron spike, we have had a serious staffing crisis. They are exhausted as well as the students.”

Medical experts were not all on board with the decision. Dr Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, wondered if it would be fair to keep school students masked even as most others dropped their masks.

“If the state is allowing mask optional for adults, that same approach should be applied for children,” she told ABC7, calling for a “metric-based approach with objective criteria” to improve trust in public health authorities.

But Dr Ghaly said schools need more protection at this point and inputs from teachers, nonteaching staff and public health leaders had been taken into consideration.

Dr John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, agreed. “Given the trajectory of the number of cases, the decrease in hospitalizations, we are in a terrific position right now,” he said and hoped that if the trend continued, the mask mandate in schools could be lifted.

Dr Swartzberg also pointed out that child vaccination rates are not high enough yet. Only 33 percent of Californian children between the ages of 5 and 11 have been fully vaccinated as compared to nearly 74% of Californians aged 5 and above, with 55% having received booster shots as well.

Governor Gavin Newsom blamed organized disinformation efforts for limiting vaccinations reaching the next level. Treating the disease as endemic will allow flexibility in response, he said, but “we still have a lot of work to do to convince people that they should get vaccinated, let alone boosted”.

The endemic disease approach may still include quarantines, testing of asymptomatic people and other precautions, but those safeguards will vary based on more than a dozen “guideposts” designed to spot new surges and virus variants, the governor said.