Mask-wearing, after serving as the first line of defense during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, now serves as the second line of defense behind vaccines, according to the chair of the New Canaan Health & Human Services Commission.
A topic of much debate in New Canaan, the masks “are still important,” according to Dr. Harrison Pierce, a local pediatrician for more than four decades,
“We know how they function,” Pierce said during the Commission’s regular meeting Thursday, held via videoconference. “They filter the droplets, the aerosol, and they do this with varying degrees of efficiency,” from cloth masks to surgical masks and N-95 masks.
“If you are uninfected and you are wearing a mask, you decrease the risk of getting COVID by about 67%, and if you are infected and wearing one you decrease of giving it to others by about 75%,” Pierce said. “And if you are both wearing it there is about a 92% decreased risk of getting sick with COVID.”
The comments came during a a discussion on mask-wearing that Pierce said he added to the appointed body’s agenda after hearing from State Rep. Lucy Dathan (D-142nd) and Commissioner Jenn Hladick on whether the Commission had a position with respect to masks.
The issue has made headlines recently, as Gov. Ned Lamont has asked the state legislature to extend his executive powers, including with respect to an order in which the governor empowers the Department of Public Health commissioner to set rules about what types of buildings require mask-wearing (including schools). In New Canaan, parents have spoken out at recent Board of Education meetings, and the school board is scheduled to meet at 2:30 p.m. Friday, in part to vote on whether to send a letter to Lamont and others in Hartford requesting “local control” in COVID-related decision-making. (There’s also a community forum scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday in Saxe Middle School on the topic, with New Canaan’s delegation to the General Assembly and Board of Ed members.)
Pierce noted that deaths among children from COVID are “extremely rare” though “not nonexistent,” and cited reports in the fall from the CEO of Yale Children’s Hospital about 200 children hospitalized with COVID there and 50 with a related multi-system inflammatory disease of children.
“In fact supposedly now there are two children with that from our community at Yale,” Pierce said.
“So we know that children not only get sick but they transmit the virus, and transmission is much lower with mask mandates,” Pierce said.
Citing a study out of Duke and North Carolina that was supportive of mask-wearing, he said, “What do masks do? They keep the schools open. They decrease the illness. They decrease the hospitalizations. And generally speaking, masks are well tolerated. In New Canaan Public Schools, there’s a handful of kids who are not masked and they have very good reasons, special needs, et cetera. But when you look at the total population of 4,000 students, that’s pretty impressive. And parents are often concerned, those with asthma, with cystic fibrosis, whatever, that in some way the mask is interfering with the mechanics of the ventilation, et cetera, which is not the case, and the sedentary setting. And honestly, it’s those children that you really want to be more protected from infection.”
Lamont with respect to COVID-related orders “does not make these decisions in a vacuum or silo,” Pierce said.
“He’s got Yale public health people, UConn, he’s got infectious disease people, he’s got epidemiologists, and they all have input into the decision-making process. So we’ll see where this goes.”
During the meeting, Health Director Jenn Eielson presented updated data on New Canaan’s vaccination rates, as follows, including new statistics on residents who have received a booster shot. Eielson noted in her remarks that “even with the seniors 65-and-over, the uptake on boosters statewide has not been quite as expected”:
Vaccination Status, New Canaan Residents*
|Age Range||1st Dose||2nd Dose||Booster|
*Data from state Department of Public Health as of Jan. 27, 2022
Asked why residents, even seniors, appear to be somewhat lax with respect to getting a booster shot, especially as compared to the first two doses, Eielson said that part of the problem likely is that the “CDC created a lot of confusion in the beginning” by not communicating clearly.
Commissioner Russ Barksdale Jr. said that the entire community shares a passion about COVID-related rules such as masking.
Yet “we cannot fall into the resolution that COVID is over and it has diminished its impact on a very vulnerable population that we have,” he added.
“It is also important to note that there were more deaths under Omnicron than there were in the Delta. So mortalities still exist and anxieties are very high, so I think how people deal with not only vaccinations but mask-wearing and distancing and attending school and classes, as well as work environments, are extremely important.”
Saying Pierce is a “renowned pediatrician in our community,” Barksdale asked the chair whether he believes that masks should no longer be mandated in New Canaan schools after Feb. 15.
Pierce answered, “I am a ‘better safe than sorry’ person. The numbers right now are roughly last two weeks, the numbers of COVID positives in school over the last six weeks have decreased high was 147 down to in the last two weeks in the 30s category. I am as anxious as anyone to get this behind us, and I can appreciate the concern on parents with the masking. Not that it’s that well-based scientifically, but there’s a discomfort and a lot of parents don’t want to see their children masked. So February there’s going to be a school break in two weeks, and people will be going traveling all over the country, they will be going to various regions north, south, west, and they will be exposed and there’s always a blip in the numbers when they come back from vacations. And the data has to dictate really what to do. When you drop the masks the numbers are going to go up.”
The commissioners discussed how large is the group of parents who are pushing for the end to the masking requirement in schools.
Commissioner Alicia Meyer said, “I have three children in school here in New Canaan and I think there’s a very vocal number of parents who want to unmask. I also think there’s a lot of parents who realize state of Connecticut, and in particular the town of New Canaan, has done a wonderful job of keeping our schools open when other places were not keeping their schools open. And they did that by masking, ventilation and then when vaccines were available, being very proactive with vaccination. And it has worked, and we’ve kept our kids in school. I moved here from California my fiends California didn’t have their kids in school for an entire year. We have our kids in school and I’d love to keep them in school. We need to keep the schools open, the way to do that is keep doing what has been successful, keep our numbers as low as we can. Masking is a huge part of that, not forever. But like we’ve said, we’re not out of the woods yet. As Jenn said earlier, COVID ebbs and flows. There’s already an Omicron 1B, there’s a new variant that’s more contagious. So I would not mistake a very vocal contingent of parents for the majority of parents.”