Some medical experts on Long Island say if Gov. Kathy Hochul wants to safely lift the mask mandate for schools, a far higher percentage of children must be vaccinated first — especially those ages 5 to 11.
And some say that won’t happen unless she mandates it.
“The only way you can protect your kids without these masks is really to get them vaccinated,” said Dr. Mundeep Kainth, pediatric infectious disease doctor at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park.
“The next thing the governor should do, the day she tells the schools that they don’t have to wear masks, is mandate a COVID vaccine for all kids in school,” Kainth said.
Hochul has said that she will make a decision on school masks most likely during the first week of March after students return from their winter break on Feb. 28.
Appearing on MSNBC in December, she said a mandate of the vaccine for all eligible schoolchildren is “absolutely something we’re looking at seriously,” but that it would take legislative action.
She is under pressure from some parents who want the masks gone, and from the example of neighboring counterparts such as Gov. Phil Murphy, who has announced New Jersey will end its school mask mandate on March 7.
But some medical experts believe that may be premature unless the vaccination rates rise dramatically — and quickly.
About 70% of 12- to 17-year-olds in New York State are fully vaccinated, which infectious disease specialists say represents a good start in the ultimate goal to get that rate closer to 90% and higher.
The rate for children ages 5 to 11 is much lower — only about 32% are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
Children under five are not yet eligible for the vaccine at all.
Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, agreed that more children, especially the younger ones, need to get vaccinated before the mask mandate is dropped.
“My concern is that when we do go to unmask in schools, we will see a second surge amongst children who have not yet had COVID,” Nachman said, adding that “prevention is key. Therefore, getting a vaccine before that happens will be very important.”
Given current vaccine levels among children ages 5 to 12, Nachman said she thinks it is unlikely it will be safe or recommendable to drop the mask mandate in March.
Kainth said that even if positivity levels and case numbers are relatively low, it is still imperative that more children get vaccinated. And that may require mandating the shots, given parents that are resisting, she said.
“We know that those parents who are vaccine-hesitant are not going to show up and get that done unless you force the hand and say, ‘Hey you know, your kid is not going to be able to go to school unless you get them vaccinated,’” she said.
Both doctors said that other factors also play into the decision of whether and when to lift the mask mandate.
Nachman said it will be important to see if case numbers and positivity levels jump after Hochul last Thursday lifted the mask or vaccine requirement for indoor public places including stores, restaurants, gyms and theaters.
Ideally, the seven-day positivity level should be at 1% or less, Nachman said. Currently it is about 3.5% on Long Island.
She said there are no absolute numbers that must be met, but rather it is a “bigger picture” scenario involving numerous factors.
“So is a third of the families protected sufficient? Clearly not,” Nachman said. If 100% of the children were vaccinated, that would be great, “but that’s not realistic.”
Many families may decide to have their children continue to wear a mask in school even if the governor drops the mandate, Nachman said. She noted that many people are still wearing them in stores even though they don’t have to.
“We should not ever shame those children or make fun of those families because they are still concerned about their own children,” she said.
With Matt Clark
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