The CDC’s Explanation for Its Reversal on School Mask Mandates Is Transparently Dishonest

New York Governor Kathy Hochul yesterday announced that a statewide rule requiring students to wear masks in K–12 schools will be lifted this Wednesday. Eric Adams, the New York mayor announced that his city will be ending its school mask mandate next Monday. California officials expect to make a similar announcement today.

Three weeks ago, several governors of blue states announced that they would no longer require school districts or other entities to apply masks to children. On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) belatedly ratified those decisions, saying it was changing its masking recommendations for schools and indoor businesses.

As always, the CDC claims that it is following science and adapting to new conditions. But given that CDC Director Rochelle Walensky was saying as recently as February 15 that the agency had no plans to change its recommendations for schools, it seems clear that the CDC is shifting with the same political winds that encouraged one Democratic governor after another to lift statewide mask mandates.

The fact that Walensky announced the changes before the CDC had even managed to revise its “Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K–12 Schools” suggests she was anxious to disguise the agency’s growing irrelevance. It would have been painfully obvious that nearly no one is paying any attention to the CDC’s advice if they had waited longer.

According to the new guidelines, the CDC suggests general masking only for counties at “high risk”. This level is determined based upon hospitalization rates, capacity of local hospitals, and daily new cases. The new guidelines state that about 30% of Americans reside in counties with high risk. The vast majority of Americans did not live in high-risk counties, as 95 percent were previously.

In another key change, the CDC says it will update its guidance for K–12 schools to align its masking recommendations for students with its masking recommendations for the general public. The CDC had previously insisted that “universal masking” be used in daycare centers and schools. This was regardless of COVID-19 trends.

The new evidence is not sufficient to support either the modified definition of risk, or the elimination of the double test for schools vs. business.

Since the start of this winter’s Omicron Wave, it has become clear that although the variant is highly contagious and can be spread to others, the virus is not as severe. This makes case numbers less useful than ever in determining severity of disease. The pandemic began two years ago. It was clear that COVID-19 is rarely a life-threatening condition in children, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated.

Since the COVID-19 vaccines’ approval in December 2020, it has been obvious that these vaccines dramatically lower the chance of death and hospitalization for adult who may have been exposed to the virus. No matter how forced they are to, adults have always had the option of protecting themselves with high-quality masks that fit well. The CDC cannot provide any convincing evidence to support the claim that school masks are important in preventing virus transmission.

Hochul shared that he is happy there was a school mask requirement when he looked back on what happened a little while ago. This is how we prevented these numbers from increasing. Hochul’s conviction, which is more an expression of faith than of scientific fact, follows the exact same pattern as cases in almost every state during the omicron wave.

As Reason‘s Robby Soave reported earlier this month, Walensky conceded during a closed-door congressional briefing on February 15 that the studies on which the CDC relied to justify school mask mandates “all have limitations…because we are not randomizing schools.” The majority of studies didn’t even attempt to compare mandated schools to those without. Even if they included such a comparisons, it was impossible to make firm conclusions regarding the effectiveness mask mandates’ effectiveness due to the inability to adjust for potential confounding variables like vaccination rates or other COVID-19 safeguards.

Walensky, on the other hand, claimed that there was no scientific basis for universal masking in schools. She didn’t defend the methodology of an Arizona study, which she had repeatedly referenced to justify her school mask mandates. Instead she dodged all questions and insisted that studies after studies had shown that layers of preventive strategies (including masks in schools) are capable of keeping schools safe.

Not whether schools using “layered prevention strategies” could function “safely”, the crucial question was whether mask mandates were required to accomplish that result. Walensky confessed in private that this was not the case.

Walensky, more generally speaking, has exaggerated evidence favoring general masking. She claimed that wearing a mask reduces the risk of getting ill.[es]Your chance of getting infected by HIV is more than 80 percent. Walensky’s claim is supported by no evidence whatsoever. I asked the CDC for its support. It replied with boilerplate advice on masks, and links to multiple CDC publications. Walensky made no distinction between mask types, suggesting that her amazing results could also be achieved using cloth masks. The CDC eventually conceded that these masks “provide the lowest protection”.

The CDC stated this month that a study showed cloth masks “lower the chances of testing positive” by 56 per cent. However, the risk reduction for surgical masks was 66 per cent and N95/KN95 respirators were 83. The result was statistically insignificant for cloth masks, while the risk reductions were 66 percent and 83 percent respectively for surgical masks.

Especially considering this past, it is difficult to accept the CDC’s dramatic reversal of school mask mandates as a mere explanation. Greta Masetti, CDC epidemiologist told reporters Friday that they have been reviewing data about COVID in children over the past two years. We have found that children are more susceptible to mild or asymptomatic infections than adults.

Massetti misunderstood the evidence. The CDC had estimated, based upon data before vaccines were made, that the COVID-19 death rate among people under the age of 18 was 0.002 per cent a year prior. “A (pre-vaccine!) analysis from Germany shows that if a child is infected with COVID—with or without preexisting conditions—there is an 8 in 100,000 chance of going to the intensive care unit,” University of California, San Francisco, epidemiologist Vinay Prasad notes. According to that same study, there is a 3 in 1,000,000 chance of death, and no deaths in children over 5 years old. These risks are astoundingly low.

The CDC knew about the “astonishingly high” risk for a very long time. These were valid reasons to question school mask policies’ wisdom. They existed when the CDC started recommending it more than a decade ago. This has remained true ever since.

Immediately after noting that children face little risk from COVID-19, Massetti reverted to the misleading gloss favored by Walensky: “We know that when schools implement layered prevention strategies, that they can prevent…transmission of the virus that causes COVID 19.” This is especially true when it comes to mask requirements. However, even if this were true, what does that claim have to do with the CDC’s current position that only high-risk children must wear masks in these counties? After losing the thread of her argument, Massetti reiterated that “schools can be safe places for children” because “children are relatively at lower risk from severe illness”—something the CDC has understood all along.

It is not following the science very well, even though the CDC claims it does. The explanation it gives for this shift and the reasons behind previous reversals is clearly dishonest. Walensky may be able save the CDC’s reputation by finally submitting to political decisions, something she has stubbornly resisted to this Friday. But it’s probably too late.