Kids staying masked inside classrooms is ‘reasonable’ for a period of time, former FDA chief says
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Parents of children under 12, who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, will have to continue to make individual assessments about their risk, said Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration — even as officials cheer the steady decline in COVID cases in the United States and the return to relative normalcy for many vaccinated adults.
In an interview on CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday, Gottlieb said about 85 percent of those above the age of 65 have been vaccinated, which has helped account for a drop in infections and hospitalizations. On Friday, the seven-day average of new coronavirus infections in the United States fell to 27,815, dropping below 30,000 for the first time in 11 months, according to state health department data compiled by The Washington Post.
"It shows really a rapidly declining overall vulnerability of the U.S. population," Gottlieb said. "The bottom line is that the people who are getting infected now tend to be people who are younger or less vulnerable to the infection because a lot of the vulnerable population has been vaccinated."
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its mask guidance, announcing that fully vaccinated Americans no longer needed to wear face coverings indoors or outdoors in most cases. The change has since prompted many businesses and retailers to also say they would rely on what amounts to an honor system in their establishments, leaving many in the lurch about what to do with their unvaccinated children. Though vaccine trials are underway for children under 12, it will probably be months before they are eligible to receive any of the shots.
Gottlieb said parents would need to take stock of the situations they are in on a case-by-case basis. Citing summer camps as an example, he said he did not believe masks were necessary for children outdoors and said he thought the CDC would need to revise its guidelines there. (CDC officials have indicated they are updating their guidelines for summer camps, schools and businesses, and those are expected soon.)
Indoor classrooms could be another matter, though, he noted.
"Wearing masks is difficult in the summertime when it's hot, and I don't think that the risk merits that," Gottlieb said. "But I do think parents need to make an assessment about the risk of the environment. ... In a crowded, indoor, stuffy setting, in a classroom, for example, I think having kids continue to wear masks for a period of time is reasonable."
Gottlieb said the same assessments would be applicable to adults who are still vulnerable, perhaps if they are unvaccinated, have a pre-existing medical condition or are immunocompromised.
"I think it's an environment right now where we're not going to rely necessarily on public health ordinances and mandates from governors and mayors to protect us," Gottlieb said. "But we're going to have to protect ourselves based on our own assessment of our risk and our own comfort."
Many states have lifted their statewide mask mandates in the wake of the CDC's shift in mask guidance or have plans to do away with COVID-related restrictions in the near future. The silver lining, Gottlieb said, is that masks have become more culturally accepted over the course of the pandemic.
"There's nothing wrong with wearing a mask if you're still in an indoor setting, even in an environment where it's not mandated," he said. "If you're walking around with a mask right now, you're not looked upon in an odd fashion. Whereas two years ago, if you wore a mask, everyone would take a step back from you."
The Washington Post's Carol Eisenberg contributed to this report.