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Opinion | Republicans are spreading disinformation about vaccine, face masks

What’s happening in several states, including ours, should outrage every parent and every American. Republican politicians from Florida and Texas to North Carolina and, yes, even here in Michigan, continue to willfully spread disinformation to downplay the COVID-19 pandemic, divide people and, worse, use their position to discourage or even prevent schools from implementing safety measures such as mask requirements.

For Michigan kids who can’t be vaccinated yet, masks are an important line of defense against COVID-19, and leaders of all stripes should be promoting them if they actually care about our children

Dr. Farhan Bhatti
Dr. Farhan Bhatti is a Lansing family physician and Michigan State Lead for the Committee to Protect Health Care. (Courtesy photo)

The original, or alpha, strain of COVID-19 was thought to largely be a disease of the elderly and adults with pre-existing conditions like diabetes, COPD and obesity. The delta variant, however, follows an entirely different playbook. And with delta responsible for more than 90 percent of all COVID-19 cases in America, the rules have changed. It is up to 60 percent more transmissible than the alpha variant. It is causing severe illness in young, healthy adults at alarming rates. And at the start of this month, 15 percent of all new cases of COVID-19 in America were in people under age 18.

Yet here in Michigan, Republican politicians continue to refer to last year’s playbook. Their highest-ranking lawmaker, Sen. Mike Shirkey, recklessly undermines our health and safety by peddling the dangerous claim that children are unlikely to be harmed by COVID-19. In his recent Bridge Michigan guest commentary, he irresponsibly cited 11-month-old data to support that claim – data from before the emergence of the delta variant. He’s also obsessed with the idea that natural immunity is just as good as vaccination immunity. Inconveniently for Shirkey, science continues to show that vaccinations confer more durable immunity than those who were infected and recovered.

Shirkey also continues to claim that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu. Sen. Shirkey has his math and his facts horrendously wrong: Between Jan. 1, 2021, and Aug. 3, at least 6,476 Michiganders died from COVID-19. Deaths from the flu? Six.

Shirkey’s lament that science is being politicized, in fact, is completely laughable since he himself continues to distort health data to undermine vaccination efforts for blatantly political ends.

As a family physician, I’ve spent the past 18 months doing everything I can to protect my patients and their families from COVID-19. As a Lansing School District board member, I recently advanced a policy to reduce the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission. With a unanimous 9-0 vote, my fellow board members and I will require all K-12 students in Lansing to wear masks. We will also require all staff and teachers to get vaccinated or take a daily rapid antigen test when the new school year starts.

 Between Jan. 1, 2021, and Aug. 3, at least 6,476 Michiganders died from COVID-19. Deaths from the flu? Six.

Not every district may choose to follow suit. But at the very least, all school districts claiming to have the health and well-being of kids at heart should require mask usage. 

It is a tragedy every time a child is intubated due to COVID-19, and this is happening with alarming frequency in states across the south, like Arizona, Texas, and Florida. Florida has the highest rate of kids hospitalized with COVID-19. Pediatric hospitalizations in Arizona doubled in just one month. Texas is now hospitalizing 40 children every day and children’s hospitals there are 97 percent full. Yet, the Republican governors in all three states have banned local school districts from implementing simple safety measures that can reduce the spread of COVID-19, such as wearing masks and requiring vaccinations. 

Michigan’s children deserve to attend school in-person safely. Michigan’s kids have sacrificed enough. With more than 641,000 pre-K- to 5th-grade students in Michigan still ineligible for vaccinations, discouraging or preventing mask usage puts those children and, importantly, the unvaccinated adults in their families, at greater risk of sickness and possible death.

With so much at risk to every child who isn't vaccinated, discouraging a simple safety measure that can protect lives – wearing a mask in school – is as reckless and foolish as it is negligent.

We adults have a responsibility to protect our children. We know how. Republican lawmakers in the state simply need to follow the science and persuade families and schools to mask kids up.

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