Healthier Oklahoma Coalition: Masks, vaccines vital to COVID-19 fight as cases rise and students head back to class

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Experts with the Healthier Oklahoma Coalition say with cases on the rise, the delta variant, and back-to-school approaching, Oklahomans need to know the importance of masks and vaccinations now more than ever.

“Do we want kids in the classroom or not? I think we do and so if that’s the priority then we need to think about policies that help us do that,” said Aaron Wendelboe, Ph.D., epidemiologist and professor at the OU College of Public Health.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending schools require face masks for children older than 2 and all adults regardless of vaccination status.

The group said it’s because “a significant portion” of the student population is not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines, in new guidance that came out on Monday.

At this time, the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is only authorized for emergency use for children as young as 12 years old.

The group also includes concern for the more-contagious delta variant as a reason for everyone to wear masks in schools, regardless of vaccination status.

That guidance is slightly different from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has advised mask-wearing in schools just for unvaccinated children and adults.

“We are seeing previously healthy children coming in with COVID-pneumonia, requiring oxygen,” said Donna Tyungu, M.D., pediatric infectious disease specialist with OU Health.

On Monday, the state of Oklahoma had 29 pediatric COVID-19 hospital cases.

In May, Governor Kevin Stitt signed Senate Bill 658preventing schools from mandating vaccines or masks for kids who haven’t had the shot. At the time, bill authors said it was about personal privacy and choice.

The Healthier Oklahoma Coalition says if you want to stay in the classroom, you need everyone wearing a mask.

“So not having the flexibility of recommending or even mandating masks, one of the questions we have is that if there is an outbreak in a school and what are we going to do as far as contract tracing, as far as isolation and quarantining. If we are able to mask then people that were potentially exposed won’t get sick they will be able to stay in the classroom,” said Dr. Wendelboe. “Without that mask mandate, they get exposed, they get infected. They have to go back. Educators may have to go to online. Again, I just think we really need to think about priorities and then a strategic plan to support those priorities.”

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“I think we all can agree on the importance of school, and we need our children in school. Not learning by computers, but the best and safest way to do that is to make sure that we don’t spread this potentially deadly disease throughout the schools,” said Dr. Tyungu.

On Tuesday, there were 25 pediatric hospitalizations in Oklahoma.

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