Physicians, parents speak on mask mandate

Dr. Brad Walsh addresses the Crossett School District's Board of Education at a meeting Tuesday, Aug. 25. Walsh and two other area physicians spoke in favor of having a mask mandate for schools in light of the surge in active COVID-19 cases in the area; Walsh told the board that the Ashley Family Clinic saw more than a dozen pediatric COVID-related cases on Tuesday. When he brought his concerns to the board, Dr. Barry Thompson told the members, "I can tell you masks are safe for kids." Some parents who spoke at the same meeting spoke against the mandate, saying it violates their civil liberties. (VERSHAL HOGAN/News Observer)

Crossett residents and local doctors gathered at Crossett High School on Tuesday evening to voice their opposition to or support for a mask mandate in the Crossett Public School District.

The CSD’s Board of Education met at the school to hear an update from Superintendent Gary Williams about the number of COVID-19 cases and quarantines in the district, but the bulk of the meeting was dominated by comments from the public. The meeting came on the same day that Ashley County found itself at the No. 1 spot for per capita COVID infections.

In the school district itself, there were 15 active cases of the virus and 49 quarantines in effect, Williams said. Another 48 students or staff were categorized as “avoided quarantines” because of the mask mandate.

Under the Arkansas Department of Health’s guidelines, if a person tests positive for COVID 19 and is in close proximity to another person for an aggregate of 15 minutes during a 24 hour period, both individuals have to go into quarantine. If both are wearing masks, only the positive person must be quarantined, but if either of the parties is unmasked, however, both still have to go into quarantine.

Those who are categorized as “avoided quarantines” are those who would have had to self-isolate if they had not been masked.

The district needs more substitute teachers, Williams said, so averted quarantines in the first week of school helped avoid relying on an already taxed system. In some instances, other district teachers are having to cover for regular classroom teachers when they have to be out of work.

“Over the last two days, we had four teachers who avoided quarantine due to the mask policy,” Williams said. “Thankfully we were able to keep those teachers in the building and in the classroom in front of our kids.”

The Arkansas Department of Health’s twice-weekly data reports that the Hamburg School District increased from 13 to 17 cumulative cases from Thursday, Aug. 19. to Monday, Aug. 23. The available data does not include how many students or staff are quarantined.

At the Crossett meeting, when the board opened the floor for comments, like elsewhere when the discussion about masks has taken place, the comments tended to fall along the lines of parental rights versus public health.

Speaker Lee Barnett said he felt like the school board was trampling on parents’ civil liberties by mandating that students wear masks instead of allowing the parents to decide. He also questioned the effectiveness of the policy when sports contact would put students well past the guidance for social distancing.

“I don’t understand how (the virus) is going to get them in the classroom but not on the football field where they are literally swapping bodily fluids (with sweat),” Barnett said.

When it was her turn to speak, Jennifer Sheridan, who has a child at Crossett Elementary School, referenced a comment board member Keith Carter made in a previous meeting about how he did not know if masks actually work.

“If you are going to muzzle our children against our wishes and you are going to instill fear in our children, I am going to need more than that,” Sheridan said. “This week it will be a mask against our will; next week it will be a vaccine against our will.”

When he took the microphone, Justin Reed said that he “freakin’ hates masks” but believes they are worth it if it keeps children from having to learn at home, parents from having to take time off work to teach, or if they prevent the spread of the virus. Reed said that despite his personal preferences he has to take into consideration how his choices will affect others.

“I believe that when masks are worn properly, they do help the prevention of spreading (sickness), whether it be stomach virus, the common cold, or COVID,” he said. “That is why we tell our children to cover your mouth when you cough. Does it work 100 percent? No. But it helps.”

Crossest-based family physician Dr. Barry Thompson told the school that doctors are almost at the point where they can’t cope with the surge in COVID cases any more. Masks can help stem the spread, he said.

“I can tell you masks are safe,” Thompson said. “When we operate on people, when we go into the operating room, we wear masks…There is no problem with children wearing masks.”

Family Clinic of Ashley County’s Dr. Brad Walsh also spoke in favor of masks, noting that he wears one all day at work and saying that children can learn with the masks on.

“Kids are pretty adaptable,” he said.

 Walsh said that the bottom line of any decision is to keep the children of the community safe, and that while parents have a right to raise their children as they want, they don’t have a right to make a decision that harms their child or puts other children in harm’s way. That’s why the school district has long required such preventative measures for students as vaccination for whooping cough, chicken pox and other infectious diseases.

Walsh said that the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences has predicted a doubling of COVID cases in the coming month.

“Any decision that ignores that fact…perpetuates the pandemic,” he said. “This isn’t politics or Facebook or anything else, this is public health, which is what I do.”

Walsh also told the board that Dr. Kenneth Richard’s pediatric clinic saw 32 children Tuesday. Approximately half of those were COVID-related visits, he said.

Dr. Mark Malloy, an internist at Ashley Family Clinic, also told the board he supports the mask requirement, thanking them for, “standing in the gap.”

Resident Jo Ellen Johnson said any change in the mask policy, which has been in effect for less than two weeks, would be hasty at this point.

“Since school has only been in session a week and vaccination rates are very low, it is too soon to rescind the mask policy,” she said.

The board adjourned the meeting without taking any action following the public’s comments, meaning the mask mandate remains in effect in the CSD.

As of Tuesday evening, Aug. 24, Ashley County had 175 reported active cases of COVID 19. The county has seen 39 confirmed COVID-related deaths, a count that has risen since last week.

Statewide, Arkansas had a reported 23,128 active cases and had recorded 6,749 deaths, up from 5,539 since Aug. 18.

One of the most significant stresses on the system has been to health care providers. 

Speaking during a new conference Tuesday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said zero ICU beds were available for COVID patients in the state of Arkansas.

“Everyone should know the strain this puts on our hospitals and the need to get our vaccinations and how critical our bed space is,” Hutchinson said.Among the active cases reported Tuesday, 85 percent were unvaccinated. Approximately 89 percent of COVID deaths recorded in the state since Feb. 1, 2021, have been unvaccinated. 

In Ashley County, approximately 46 percent of the population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, but only 37 percent of the population is considered fully vaccinated.While some residents have been hesitant to receive a vaccine approved under an “emergency use” label, the Food and Drug Administration issued this week full approval for the COVID-19 inoculation commonly known as the Pfizer vaccine. It will now be marketed as Comirnaty.

The vaccine also continues to be available under emergency use authorization (EUA), including for individuals 12 through 15 years of age and for the administration of a third dose in certain immunocompromised individuals.“The FDA’s approval of this vaccine is a milestone as we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. While this and other vaccines have met the FDA’s rigorous, scientific standards for emergency use authorization, as the first FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine, the public can be very confident that this vaccine meets the high standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality the FDA requires of an approved product,” said Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock, M.D. “While millions of people have already safely received COVID-19 vaccines, we recognize that for some, the FDA approval of a vaccine may now instill additional confidence to get vaccinated. Today’s milestone puts us one step closer to altering the course of this pandemic in the U.S.” Since Dec. 11, 2020, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine has been available under EUA in individuals 16 years of age and older, and the authorization was expanded to include those 12 through 15 years of age on May 10, 2021. EUAs can be used by the FDA during public health emergencies to provide access to medical products that may be effective in preventing, diagnosing, or treating a disease, provided that the FDA determines that the known and potential benefits of a product, when used to prevent, diagnose, or treat the disease, outweigh the known and potential risks of the product.

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