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Opinion | Science— not politics — should guide policy on masks in schools

In 1955, scientific inquiry resulted in the monumental discovery by Dr. Jonas Salk: A safeguard against a disease previously thought unbeatable. Polio was an illness that could kill its victims or leave them permanently paralyzed.  Even more frightening was that this illness attacked children with particular viciousness.

Bearing this in mind, one has to ask if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest recommendation that all children be masked against COVID-19 in the upcoming school year is a solution in search of a problem. Despite repeated requests to Michigan public health officials (who have endorsed the CDC recommendations) for the “science and data” public health orders have been based upon — none has been provided.

Counter opinion: Hey Mike Shirkey, questioning face masks is just ignorant

Sen. Mike Shirkey
Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, is the Senate majority leader of Michigan.

It’s true that there is much, much more scientists — and by extension, public health officials and government leaders — have to learn about this illness. It’s true that there is an alarming lack of media coverage attesting to that fact. But it is also true that there are some facts about COVID-19 that politicians (and public health officials acting on behalf of politicians) consistently and willfully choose to ignore. 

First, politicians consistently overstate the severity of COVID-19 for the general population. According to one study from the Brookings Institute, Democrats are much more likely to overstate certain facts related to severity, such as the number of cases that require hospitalization. We must be unflinchingly realistic and honest about this illness and be willing to ask questions to get sound, fact-based information, otherwise, we are merely being ruled by fear — or worse, politics. 

Second, studies have found COVID-19 is usually no more harmful than the flu for children, and it is not the only threat facing them over the past 18 months. Children are disproportionately suffering emotionally, socially and academically. They need to see smiles, have contact with teachers and other children, be able to breathe uncontaminated air freely, and begin the process of recovery from the disruption of their lives. 

Over the course of the pandemic, emergency rooms have seen a 24 percent increase in mental health-related visits from children ages 5 to 11 compared to the previous year. Among older children the increase is even greater — 31 percent.

Schools report that they are struggling to educate our children, especially among Black, Hispanic and poor children who are falling even further behind. 

Third, and most importantly, despite the growing body of research that naturally acquired immunity is as good as or better than vaccinated immunity in documented cases, the CDC, public health officials and most politicians choose to block discussion of it. I bring this up primarily because I fear the fixation on vaccination has elbowed out any other approach that may turn out to be more effective, less costly, or have fewer negative side effects than the route that’s been chosen for us by politicians.  [Editor’s note: Several studies, including one Friday by the CDC, indicate vaccines generally confer more immunity than prior infections or natural immunity, while another study estimates the U.S. COVID vaccination program has saved 279,000 lives.]

I encourage doctors and scientists to have a more robust dialogue about immunity. Our public health departments have failed us. They have pushed only partially investigated information about antibodies as confirmed science. They have also failed to educate the public about ways to improve their resilience to disease and overall health. 

It is convenient for politicians when they can be seen as having solutions in the palm of their hand, but scientific inquiry is difficult, often risky and messy. Initial conclusions are almost always re-examined and revised. Assumptions are challenged, and as a result, the understanding of the world around us grows. 

To my dismay, I fear the CDC has based its recommendations more on politics than science and is unsure how to get out of the political arena. Facts are stubborn things that once bent for political gain, tend to not bend back easily. But we must overcome this ugly period of politicizing public health, and, instead, pledge our fidelity to where the facts lead us. 

To stifle inquiry in preference for a political win in the public eye is dishonest, if not dangerous. We can and should expect more from our public health leaders.

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