Maricopa County health care workers ask for school mask mandate as COVID pediatric cases rise

A letter signed by more than 1,000 health professionals in Maricopa County says schools without mask mandates are twice as likely to have a COVID-19 outbreak among school and staff compared with those that require universal masking. (File photo by Kelly Richmond/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Physicians, health care workers and public health professionals in Maricopa County this week urged the county Board of Supervisors to enact a universal mask mandate for K-12 schools as the number of kids hospitalized for COVID-19 continues to rise at an “alarming” rate.

More than 1,000 health care workers signed a letter asking supervisors to adopt a resolution requiring masks to protect students, many of whom are too young to be vaccinated.

“The need for action is urgent, it’s immediate and it’s right now,” said Dr. Christina Bergin, a physician at a Phoenix hospital. “Every day that we fail to act, to require universal masking or take significant action to improve the air quality and filtration in classrooms, many additional children and teachers become infected.”

The letter outlines the growing number of child hospitalizations.

“Children now represent 22.4% of the weekly reported COVID cases in the United States,” it said. “The dramatic increase in pediatric COVID infections directly corresponds to schools reopening without mask mandates or the ability to provide the same level of physical distancing as last year.”

Supervisors received the letter after the board’s Wednesday meeting agenda had been created, so they couldn’t address it during the session, a spokesman said in an email. He said the board appreciates the letter and shares some of the same concerns about the rise in cases and continues to monitor the data.

“Members have encouraged residents to use mitigation tactics to protect themselves and others, and they will continue to support the role Public Health plays as the department works with schools, health care professionals and the broader community,” the email said.

Bergin and Dr. Ruth Franks Snedecor, who asked their hospital affiliations not be disclosed because of safety concerns, have been working in hospitals throughout the pandemic.

“We already know that the best place for kids to learn is, in fact, the classroom,” said Franks Snedecor, who hopes the board will stand up for the health and safety of the public and “implement a resolution or adopt a resolution requiring universal mask mandates in K-12 schools.”

There were 227 active school outbreaks in Maricopa County, according to the COVID-19 dashboard, with 1,661 students infected as of Wednesday, Sept. 1. The letter says schools without mask mandates are twice as likely to have a COVID-19 outbreak among school and staff compared with those that require universal masking.

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“Children are good super spreaders because they are not vaccinated right now,” Franks Snedecor said. “Study after study shows that masking in the classroom, or masking in general, really reduces the risk of contagion and the risk of spread.”

In August, Banner Health admitted 412 pediatric patients into its hospitals or placed them under observation with suspected COVID-19 symptoms, according to information released at a news conference Wednesday. This is a significant increase compared to July, when 174 pediatric patients were admitted.

Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer at Banner Health, said, “Our pediatric population is experiencing a high level of COVID, higher than what we’ve seen previously,” but most pediatric patients do not require intensive care.

Bessel said levels of RSV – respiratory syncytial – also are on the rise much earlier than normal this season, causing some concern for what the upcoming fall and winter months could bring.

She had three recommendations for students, faculty and parents to prevent further spread of COVID-19: Children should wear masks in school, everyone who is age eligible should get vaccinated and anyone who is experiencing symptoms should not go to school.

“We see some signs that our numbers are not exponentially increasing over the last week or so,” Bessel said. “Our ICU cases are increasing, however. We will continue to see increases, which is why we’re here to ask you to do your part and get a COVID vaccination.”

Bergin and Franks Snedecor also are a part of an organization of parents and physicians that provides resources to families who want to advocate for safer pandemic practices in schools.

Aside from the letter to the board, Bergin said they are both advocating for their own children’s schools and school boards and have found success in asking for a universal mask mandate within schools. She also said it’s within the jurisdiction of the Board of Supervisors to enact masks in schools before the state ban on mask mandates takes effect later this month.

Bergin said they “really hope to get as much information out there to the public and other leaders in our state and country to raise awareness of how devastating the delta variant has been in schools.”

Sara Edwards(she/her)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Sara Edwards graduated from Cronkite with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in tourism in May 2021, and will finish her master’s degree next spring. Edwards interned with Phoenix New Times, Phoenix Magazine and Crime and Justice News. She’s working in the Phoenix News Bureau.

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