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Utah's GOP gov to school districts: If you want to mandate masks in schools, I'll issue an order authorizing you to do so

Spenser Heaps/The Deseret News via AP, Pool, File

This is different.

Last night Greg Abbott updated his ban on government vaccine mandates to clarify that the ban would still apply to Pfizer’s vaccine even though it’s now fully approved by the FDA. Previously the ban had applied only to COVID vaccines “administered under an emergency use authorization.” That was Abbott showing the world that his problem with vaccine mandates has nothing to do with the “vaccine” part and everything to do with the “mandate” part, which isn’t true of all rank-and-file Republican mandate opponents. But it’s true that being broadly anti-mandate is more politically palatable than being anti-vaccine, which is why GOP governors everywhere have sought to placate the anti-vaxxers among their base by drawing the line at mandates on basic libertarian grounds. That includes mask mandates as well, of course.

…Except in Utah, where Republican Gov. Spencer Cox marches to the beat of his own drum. Cox famously cut an ad with his Democratic opponent for governor last year before the election pledging civility and respect for the outcome. He’s offered to accept Afghan refugees in his state, a reflection of Mormons’ sympathy for minorities whose religion is disfavored by the wider population. Two days ago he broke even more dramatically with GOP orthodoxy when he offered to issue an order that would empower school districts to mandate masks this fall:

Gov. Spencer Cox said he would issue an executive order allowing local education officials to require masks for students and staff in schools, but school officials told him the issue is now politicized and would be counterproductive, The Salt Lake Tribune has learned.

The offer came during a virtual meeting with local health officials, superintendents from around the state, legislative leaders, and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson on Tuesday…

The superintendents rejected Cox’s offer, thinking school administrators were not qualified to make medical decisions. One person in the meeting said school officials favored the process put in place by lawmakers, which gives decision-making power on mandatory masking to health officials with oversight from the county government.

Resistance to Cox’s idea also was rooted in the potential blowback from the public to a mandatory masking order in schools. Another participant told The Tribune the issue is so polarizing, they would be fearful for the public’s safety if mask-wearing was on the agenda of a local school board meeting.

It’s an open question if Cox’s order would even stand, as the Salt Lake Tribune notes that another statute gives the legislature the power to terminate any mask mandates. What’s got him so spooked, though, that he’s willing to defy populists on an issue as dear to them as mask mandates? Probably this:

Bad trends, and ones which could get worse given what southern states like Florida and Louisiana are experiencing right now from Delta. Maybe Cox is also paying attention to data suggesting that infections among kids will be vastly more common this year due to the new variant. These numbers from Mississippi are arresting:

Cox was reportedly presented with graphs during Tuesday’s meeting modeling cases in Utah schools both with and without masking. The spread without masks was projected to be more than three times what it was during the same period last year, with more hospitalizations and ICU patients too. The spread *with* masks was also expected to be higher than last year but not as much. That disparity appears to be what softened Cox up.

But how did Utah officials come up with those numbers? Where’s the evidence that masks matter much in the classroom, especially since most kids will be wearing standard cloth masks and we know from last week’s Canadian study that those do little to reduce the dispersal of aerosols? Recently New York magazine went back to look at the science supporting masking in schools and found that it remains awfully thin:

Over and over, studies and reports on children in schools with low transmission rates claim in their summaries that masking students helped keep transmission down. But looking at the underlying data in these studies, masks were always required or widely worn, and implemented in concert with a variety of other interventions, such as increased ventilation. Without a comparison group that didn’t require student masking, it’s difficult or impossible to isolate the effect of masks. (This is the error made by Duke University researchers who wrote a report about North Carolina schools, later summarized in a New York Times opinion piece.) I reviewed 17 different studies cited by the CDC in its K-12 guidance as evidence that masks on students are effective, and not one study looked at student mask use in isolation from other mitigation measures, or against a control. Some even demonstrated that no student masking correlated with low transmission…

Many people may surmise that even if there’s not conclusive evidence, it’s still likely that masking kids in schools helps. But not all masks are created equal. A list of public-health notables, including Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and former COVID-19 adviser to Joe Biden, and Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the FDA, have publicly noted the limited effectiveness of cloth masks. Celine Gounder, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at NYU, who also advised Biden’s transition team on COVID-19 policy, recently tweeted a chart that showed when cloth masks are worn by both the source and receiver they provide just an estimated 27 minutes of protection from an infectious dose of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Higher-grade N95s, or KN95s, the Chinese equivalent, offer more protection, but are also much harder to tolerate over extended periods of time. Three physicians I talked with considered the idea of children wearing them all day at school — suggested recently by an aerosol scientist in the Times — “laughable,” “cruel,” and “unrealistic, because most adults can barely handle an N95 for even short durations,” since they are so uncomfortable.

The most comprehensive study of school masking to date is the one from Georgia this past May which I wrote about here. That study found there were fewer infections in schools where the adults were masked — but no statistical difference between schools where kids were masked versus ones where they weren’t. The UK actually relaxed its guidance on student masking last week: “Face coverings are no longer advised for pupils, staff and visitors either in classrooms or in communal areas.” (Although that could change if cases pick up again.)

As for whether Delta is different, experts told New York mag that there’s still no evidence that the variant is producing more severe illness in children, in which case why should the case for masking get stronger? If masks aren’t doing much, or anything, to limit infection and if infection isn’t making the average infected child more ill than he or she was last year, why mandate them? I’d be keen to hear the response from the Utah officials who are advising Cox.

By the way, like Abbott, Cox remains opposed to vaccine mandates, a strange position given his willingness to bend on mask mandates. Of those two mitigation measures, only one is going to put a major dent in the curve potentially and it ain’t masks. But oh well. Even Cox is willing to go only so far in defying party orthodoxy.