As part of its plan to reopen schools this fall, the Natrona County School District will require staff and students to wear masks when they’re within 6 feet of each other. But members of the school board expressed resistance to face coverings this past week, echoing past comments from some trustees contesting the need for measures to slow the spread of a virus that’s killed more than 130,000 Americans.
“We’ve had 21 deaths in Wyoming. Most of those were people with pre-existing conditions or in old folks homes,” trustee Kevin Christopherson said during the board’s Wednesday night meeting. “They were going to die. They just died sooner.”
“Except for the jogger in Cheyenne who died, who’s my age and had no other health problems,” replied Dr. Mark Dowell, the Natrona County health officer and an infectious disease expert who’s been treating coronavirus patients here.
“Yeah, I mean, things happen,” Christopherson said. “We’ve had 41 highway deaths this year. And I bet you you’re still driving. I know I am. I’m still driving 84 miles an hour.”
“That’s apples and oranges,” fellow trustee Dana Howie said.
As with the virus, there are laws intended to limit fatalities: car safety requirements, laws mandating passengers wear seat belts and obey speed limits, and police and highway patrolmen deployed to enforce those requirements.
“The other thing, I hate to put it this way — you cannot take risks for the population,” Dr. Ghazi Ghanem, Dowell’s infectious disease partner and another health officer, told Christopherson. “We’re entrusted with the health of the public. If I myself can just feel like, ‘Yeah, it’s OK to take a risk for myself,’ if I go and give it to you as a patient, you’re not going to appreciate that. ... It’s a risk for the public that I don’t think we can just accept.”
The board’s Wednesday meeting was the first since the state Department of Education released its blueprint for reopening schools this fall. The Natrona County School District has fleshed out that plan further, issuing a guiding document that dictates everything from transportation, passing periods, lunch and recess. The plan requires social distancing — and masking when that’s not possible — as well as increased hygiene, small group lunches, a soon-to-be detailed plan for passing periods, a ban on sharing food and attending school should a student have any symptoms.
Schools have been closed since mid-March, when Gov. Mark Gordon recommended they be shuttered to blunt the spread of the virus. State health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist later ordered them be closed, though most districts — including Natrona County — had already taken that step. Though there’s wide concern that the virus, which has spiked across the country in recent weeks, will maintain a significant presence through the fall, officials across Wyoming — not to mention President Donald Trump — have said repeatedly that they want students to return to classrooms.
Dowell and Ghanem both said they shared that goal.
“That’s our biggest ticket to stay open for the longest amount of time,” Dowell said of masking. “Our goal is to help you stay open. I think the masks — and Dr. Ghanem and Dr. (Andy) Dunn will agree — the masks are the way to go.”
“If we don’t do them, if we don’t take that extra step, we are risking a major failure,” Ghanem added. “I don’t know what else to say about masking. I feel like, if we look at other countries who within their culture they mask, they don’t have 3 million people infected. We do.”
Despite the breadth of the details within the plan, board members focused exclusively on the mask requirement. Christopherson was joined in his skepticism by Clark Jensen and Debbie McCullar. McCullar noted that few children have died of the disease and questioned why recommendations about mask wearing and other areas of the virus response are continuing to change.
“I guess I’m a little bit skeptical about the research we hear every other week,” she said.
Dowell said that the information is changing because experts are learning new things about the virus every day. He said that while it’s true that children do fairly well when infected, the concern is they will bring the virus home to their parents or to their teachers. While there are studies that have suggested children may not be significant spreaders of the disease, Dowell said there hasn’t been enough testing to really flesh that out — a point noted in other responses to these studies.
Three different studies examining various cases of spread from children suggested there was limited potential. But one of the authors of those studies said the research didn’t take into account social distancing efforts at schools, and she said it “was certainly the case” that children can spread the virus. Other studies had different findings: A top German researcher “found no significant difference” in viral loads across age groups; their study concluded that children may be just as infectious as adults.
A researcher in Hong Kong said the relatively low number of cases among children there could be attributed to both the swift closure of schools and, as Dowell noted, the low rate of testing among children. In other words, it may appear that few children have the virus because they aren’t being tested.
As he has before, Jensen wondered if it wasn’t “inevitable” that large swaths of the population would become infected and if that would be positive because it could lead to herd immunity. Dowell threw cold water on that suggestion: He said herd immunity would require more than 80 percent of the population be exposed, a threshold that would take a long time to hit.
“Our goal is to spread it as little as possible until we get a vaccine,” he said. “If you look at the first 99 days, one million Americans were infected. The second million took 33 days. The third million took 28 days. Look at what’s happening in Texas, Arizona, Florida (where cases have spiked and hospital systems are being overwhelmed).”
Jensen compared COVID-19 to the flu and noted that there were’t such stringent measures undertaken to limit the spread of influenza. For context, between 26,000 and 62,000 Americans have died of the flu since October. More than double that have died from the coronavirus in just four months.
“This is the real deal,” Dowell said. “We’ve been very sheltered (in Wyoming). We don’t want people to die, and they’ll die if we don’t do these things. There’s no question about that.”
The doctors reiterated that their concern isn’t about children becoming seriously ill but that the kids spread the virus around the community. That spread, they said, could lead to hospitals here being overwhelmed, as facilities in other parts of the country have been.
Christopherson replied that the concern about overwhelmed hospitals had been raised earlier this year and hadn’t happened (officials have said that this didn’t happen in Wyoming in part because of health orders). He speculated that because it didn’t happen before, the chances of it happening again are slim.
“I disagree. I disagree,” Ghanem said. He added that the doctors weren’t trying to fear-monger; they were trying to plan to avoid potential catastrophe. “When you start with 10 people sick, they infect 30. You start with 30, they go to 90. It’s exponential.”
“Look at Uinta County,” Dowell added. “One bar, one evening, one dance floor. One-hundred and thirty cases. It shut down two medical facilities.”
Trustee Dave Applegate sidestepped the debate about masks and pointed out the bottom line: Health orders weren’t up to the school board to decide. They’re not even up to the governor; at the state level, Harrist calls the shots. In Natrona County, Dowell and Ghanem, along with the local health department, have authority. Indeed, in mid-March, the first closure of an event in the state was the state high school basketball tournament, a decision made by Dowell.
Instead, Applegate said, the board and district should be focused on communicating with the Natrona County community on the importance of masks and ensuring that messaging was consistent and educational.
Ultimately, Dowell said, the masks were a small price to pay for keeping schools open.
“Look, what’s the big deal?” he said. “This isn’t a big deal. This is a small thing to do to try to keep the schools open and stay healthy.”