Fauci: Yes, very young unvaccinated children should still be wearing masks

Boy, I don’t know.

Over the course of the pandemic, 49,000 Americans under the age of 18 have died of all causes, according to the CDC. Only 331 of those deaths have been from COVID — less than half as many as have died of pneumonia. In 2019, more than 2,000 American kids and teenagers died in car crashes; each year, according to some estimates, about a thousand die from drowning.

[A]ccording to one, much-cited paper, the infection fatality rate for those aged 5 to 9 is less than 0.001 percent. It suggests that a child of that age, even sick, faces roughly one-ten-thousandth the mortality risk of an 85-year-old. Statistically speaking, if a kid who comes down with a coronavirus infection is facing a threat to her life equivalent to the flu — perhaps significantly less — a 90-year-old who does so is treading in the neighborhood of anthrax, the bubonic plague, and certain lighter outbreaks of Ebola.

Okay, you might say, but the point of masking kids isn’t to prevent them from dying, it’s to prevent them from getting infected so that they don’t pass the virus on to a more vulnerable adult. How much of a risk is that, realistically, though?

[O]ne recent eye-opening report was recently highlighted in Nature. Among 900,000 in-school pupils learning in North Carolina last fall, researchers would have expected, based on local transmission rates, about 900 cases of COVID. There were, it turned out, only 23. In another study, among 20,000 Nebraska students attending school all year there were, in total, two cases. Even if the numbers were higher, the risk would not have been borne by the kids themselves, but their grandparents and other more vulnerable members of the community — of whom there are many fewer now, thanks to vaccines.

Grandma and grandpa are vaccinated at this point. If they’re not getting sick, and if the kids aren’t getting sick due to natural immunity, then why are the kids still masking?

The unspoken answer in this new MSNBC segment, I think, is “Because there are a lot of unvaccinated adults still walking around and we just don’t know how transmissible the Delta variant might be from kids to adults.” The kids have to mask because too many adults refuse to do the responsible thing and get their shots.

We could take the attitude that unvaccinated adults have assumed their own risk at this point and kids shouldn’t be penalized by having to wear masks in the name of protecting them. But Fauci would say that it’s not that simple. Each new infection is a laboratory for the virus to mutate into a potentially more dangerous variant. So we have to do what we can to limit infections, at least in unvaccinated people whose immune systems will have more trouble squelching the virus before it propagates.

Is he right to worry about Delta? Well, according to the Times scoreboard, all but four states have seen cases rise over the past 14 days, reversing the steady decline of the last three months. In some, hospitalizations are ticking up too. The U.S. as a whole was averaging around 15,000 cases a day a few weeks ago, in late June. Yesterday we recorded 32,000, more than double that number. The combination of Delta and July 4 get-togethers may have birthed a new wave of unknown severity:

The obvious model here is the UK, which is now experiencing a *major* wave. The current daily case numbers are about as bad as they were in mid-December, approaching the worst of the winter surge and equivalent to around 180,000 cases in the U.S. per capita. But deaths and hospitalizations? Quite manageable at the moment:

At present there are 2,731 people in Britain hospitalized for the virus; in America, that would shake out to around 13,000 per capita. The actual number of Americans hospitalized right now is … around 20,000. Despite its wave, in other words, the UK has fewer people proportionally in need of medical care than we do. That’s encouraging in suggesting that a coming U.S. wave might be similarly mild but a bit less encouraging when you realize that Britain has vaccinated a higher percentage of its adult population (66.4 percent) than we have (58.9 percent). There’s more unvaccinated kindling for the virus here than over there.

Keep an eye on Nevada, by the way, as it’s having one of the more ominous outbreaks in the U.S. and is a rare case of a blue state struggling with a surge. The “problem” county there is Clark. Clark is, of course, home to Las Vegas, where Delta is present and recently caused a cluster of infections among a group of hospital workers even though they’d been vaccinated. Having millions of tourists descending on the city, infecting each other, and then bringing the virus back home with them is a recipe for disaster, but Vegas is probably the last place in America where the service industry would think to limit access to vaccinated people only. Casinos want to attract risk-takers, and people who have skipped their shots with Delta going around are most definitely risk-takers.