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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Children caught in Covid culture wars as US politicians defy health advice

Rightwing politicians leave parents of vulnerable children with an impossible dilemma: send children to school where others are unmasked, or keep them home – again

Ten days ago Robyn McCarthy was eagerly preparing for the return of her six-year-old son to in-person classes at his Miami public school at the start of the new school year. After 18 months of grueling lockdown at home, learning through Zoom, it was finally time for the boy to re-enter the world outside.

“We were excited and we were ready,” McCarthy said. “We’d bought the uniforms, we had the masks all ready to go. We felt confident that the school would do a great job in keeping our son and everybody else safe.”

Then a four-page document titled Executive Order 21-175 was issued by the Republican governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis.

It began by espousing scientifically dubious claims: that there was no proof that wearing masks in schools protected kids against Covid-19, that the face coverings could inhibit breathing, that children do not play a significant role in spreading the virus, and that even if they did get infected they were at low risk of becoming seriously ill.

The order stipulated that the decision on whether children wear masks in classrooms should be left to the parents. School boards across Florida would henceforth be banned from imposing mask mandates; any that refused to comply would face penalties including forfeit of state funds.

“My mouth dropped to the ground,” McCarthy said, describing her reaction to the executive order. “It came out of left field, and now we have no idea what we are going to do.”

McCarthy’s son was diagnosed with asthma at the start of the pandemic. The family has been exceptionally careful to maintain social distancing and mask-wearing for fear that were he to be infected with Covid the consequences for him given his underlying condition could be dire or even fatal. The governor’s executive order cut across that caution like a slap in the face. By permitting and encouraging children not to wear masks in school, DeSantis had effectively ended the boy’s hopes of returning to in-person education.

“This is an egregious misuse of power,” McCarthy said. “The governor says he is helping parents, but he has stripped us of our choice. One or two kids without masks in the classroom could risk my son getting really sick.”

McCarthy is one of thousands of parents in Florida left in limbo by DeSantis’s politically charged move to prevent school districts from protecting their pupils and staff through mask mandates. The order presents these families with a dilemma: send your kids into a potentially dangerous school environment in which the highly contagious new Delta variant of Covid might be running amok, or keep them at home with all the hardships that involves.

Florida’s ban on mask mandates in schools has fallen at precisely the moment in the trajectory of the US pandemic when Covid protections for children are needed most. Data is patchy, but it all points in the same direction – across the nation the disease that began by disproportionately affecting communities of colour is now inflicting its wrath on the most vulnerable group of all: children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that nationwide 94,000 children tested positive for Covid in the week ending 5 August – a substantial increase since the beginning of July. The Delta variant is so highly transmissible that it is marching its way through unvaccinated populations, and there is no population in the US today as unvaccinated as kids.

The Covid vaccine is as yet unavailable for 50 million Americans under the age of 12. Fewer than a third of 12- to 15-year-olds have been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – a substantially lower proportion than any other eligible age group.

The endgame of this clash of virus and politics is that children, who in themselves have no agency in this toxic debate, are increasingly being caught in the crosshairs of the Covid culture wars. The evidence is visible all across the US, but especially in the south, where several Republican-controlled states have taken an ideological stance in open defiance of public health guidance and science.

DeSantis has gone to war with mask mandates in schools at a time when Florida leads the nation in the number of children hospitalised with Covid. Hospitals in the state are reporting that they are treating patients as young as two months old.

In Texas, the Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has also banned local authorities from requiring masks in schools. In the wake of a surge in cases that now puts Texas close behind Florida in the league table of child hospitalisations, he has tried to blame the crisis on the Biden administration and migrants crossing into the US over the Mexican border.

In Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, another Republican governor, now wants to repeal a law he signed in April banning mask mandates in schools, saying it was an “error”. But the genie might already be out of the bottle: one in five new cases in the state are now infecting young people under 18, and hospitals are close to being overrun.

Nor does any contention that children are unlikely to get seriously ill from Covid hold water any longer. “We are seeing a big uptick in Covid-19 pediatric hospitalisations and ICU admissions,” said Peter Hotez, co-director for vaccine development at Texas Children’s hospital. “The Delta variant is now picking off all the young unvaccinated people who have been lucky enough to escape Covid so far – it’s like a forest fire raging across the south.”Advertisement

Especially at risk are those children with underlying conditions such as diabetes, obesity and, as in the case of McCarthy’s six-year-old son, asthma. When combined with Covid, the result can often be pneumonia, as many pediatric hospitals are now experiencing.

At worst, children can and do die. CDC data shows that at least 81 children in the US died of Covid between March and July.

“When in American history have we not put kids first?” Hotez asked. “This is fundamental to American, to any society’s, values: you look after your kids first. That idea – that children are in our sacred trust and must be protected – that’s gone out the window.”

Hotez warns that as schools reopen on top of already spiking numbers of new pediatric cases, hospitalisations and ICU admissions, the crisis is likely to get worse. “As bad as things look now, what we are seeing could be just the warm-up act.”

The ideological nature of the Covid response in southern states has not only put children in harm’s way, it has forced pediatricians to become the last line of defense against an army of angry parents fired up by Republican politicians spouting anti-science rhetoric. At a recent press conference in Louisiana, John Vanchiere, a professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at LSU Health Shreveport, had strong words for his fellow citizens who were turning masks into a political weapon.

“Children in Louisiana have died of Covid and more unfortunately will die,” he said. “This is not a time for politics or threatening lawsuits about having to wear a mask. Masks save lives.”

Vanchiere told the Guardian that he is treating rising numbers of children with pneumonia brought on by Covid. “They are sick enough to need supplemental oxygen and the more severe ones, especially kids with underlying conditions, may require a ventilator to breathe for them because their lungs are so sick.”

Caring for seriously ill children is always distressing, Vanchiere said, but more so when “we know the vast majority of these infections are preventable. It carries a frustration – a lot of this can be avoided with simple mitigation strategies that we’ve been using successfully for a year.”

Louisiana has the unfortunate distinction of being top state in the nation for per-capita new cases and deaths from Covid. Yet Republican lawmakers in the state legislature still tried unsuccessfully to pass a law banning mask and vaccine mandates – their efforts were foiled when the Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, reinstated a statewide order requiring all individuals to wear masks indoors when outside their homes.Advertisement

Vanchiere has been disturbed by news that some Louisiana parents, influenced by rightwing misinformation, have begun to sue school boards in an attempt to stop the enforcement of masks. “That’s just wrong,” the doctor said. “Parents are using their children as a political pawn and that’s unacceptable. I’m a physician, but I’m first a parent. There’s nothing more precious to me than the life and health of my children – and my challenge to parents is to do the same and put the safety of their children first.”

Back in Florida, Robyn McCarthy is at wits’ end about what to do with her six-year-old son. He cannot now go to school for fear that under the cloud of DeSantis’s executive order he could be exposed to the virus, but it is too late to find alternative private schooling where masks are obligatory.

McCarthy has joined the parents of 15 other Florida children with disabilities as plaintiffs in a lawsuit lodged by the Miami-based Disability Independence Group. The suit seeks to an injunction on DeSantis’s ban on mask mandates in schools.

“You can’t sit by and do nothing when innocent children are involved,” McCarthy said. “These politicians are forcing their beliefs on us and are costing innocent lives. This is not politics. My son is not a science experiment. This needs to stop.[SOURCE]

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