Keeping schools open is of paramount importance, but we are approaching it the wrong way, targeting the wrong groups, prioritizing the wrong tools.
Too much attention is being paid to masks in the news media and by politicians on both sides of the issue. Although a proper fitting surgical or KN95, or especially an N95, have a distinct value in the fight against a highly transmissible respiratory virus, a mask is of limited value especially if it is the wrong kind of mask or isn’t worn properly, as is frequently the case with young children.
Don’t get me wrong, masks are useful, but we must keep in mind that they are the last ditch effort to prevent transmission, the final (if inefficient) barrier against spreading the virus.
Universal mask strategies, although sometimes useful, are based on the erroneous assumption that everyone you meet (including yourself) could have COVID-19. By putting the wrong emphasis on masks, those invoking the politics of fear to control other people have diverted us from a far more effective strategy that should receive more prioritization, namely universal vaccines and testing.
Focus on vaccines, not masks
If you want to protect schools from COVID-19 outbreaks, the focus should shift from masks to making sure that all teachers, staff and eligible students are vaccinated. These vaccines have been shown to be quite safe and effective.
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There should be a temporary carve-out for those who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies, although they also will benefit from at least one shot of an mRNA vaccine in the long run to provide a more durable immunity.
Governors should not be involved in either imposing or blocking restrictions, which should occur more granularly, on the local level, based on outbreaks and ongoing risk.
But the best preventive strategy of all would be to make free rapid antigen COVID-19 test kits available for every household in America. If your child could be tested before coming to school at least twice a week, outbreaks could be squashed before they ever occur.
President Joe Biden, in his speech this month unveiling his six-point plan to battle COVID, took steps in this direction. Those measures include his plan to invoke the Defense Production Act; to work with Walmart, Amazon and Kroger to provide rapid tests at costs; to spend $2 billion to provide free testing at 10,000 pharmacies; and to provide 25 million tests for community health centers, food banks and schools.
Free test kits will help fight COVID-19
But this is still not enough. We need free test kits to penetrate the homes of poor families across the country to institute an effective screening program. Few parents will take their children to a pharmacy in advance of going to school. A self-testing program at home will allow us to prescreen for asymptomatic as well as symptomatic cases, creating the ability to isolate and contact trace those infected with COVID-19 before they bring it to schools.
The delta variant has brought many new challenges in terms of infection control because it has a much higher viral load and might be more easily carried and transmitted from a person’s nose.
Children have become much more efficient spreaders than previously, with more than a quarter of new cases occurring in children.
Vaccines are still effective especially at decreasing severe illness and spread, but shaming the unvaccinated when the vaccinated are largely protected is an ineffective strategy at best. Vaccine mandates should take place in businesses that want to stay open and in all health care facilities where patients are at risk, but not superimposed by the federal government with an arbitrary rule applying only to businesses with at least 100 employees.
The solution isn’t more politics, isn’t more shaming, isn’t more government mandates or mask wars. It's more vaccines at work and rapid testing at home.
Dr. Marc Siegel, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and a Fox News medical correspondent, is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. His latest book, "COVID: the Politics of Fear and the Power of Science," was published last fall. Follow him on Twitter: @DrMarcSiegel
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The best COVID message: Get vaccinated. Get tested. End the pandemic.