It’s like an overwrought B-movie plot.
The number of new COVID-19 cases in Florida has reached levels not seen since the pandemic’s inception. The number of hospitalizations has reached an all-time high. On Tuesday, more children in Florida were hospitalized with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infections than in any other state in the country.
COVID-19’s delta variant. That is what the majority of hospital officials, doctors, and epidemiologists have said.
But not in Florida, according to recent actions by state officials.
Something unusual happens when the virus comes into contact with the Sunshine State’s magical dust. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among others, on the efficacy of masks to prevent transmission may work in other states, but we have our own medical experts here: Gov. Ron DeSantis and the State Board of Education.
They are claiming that the real threat to public health, particularly among children, is not the coronavirus. It’s a mask requirement. What about the bad guys? Educators are armed with disposable face masks.
It’s a travesty of public health. The playbook elevates one of the weapons in the fight against COVID to the level of a national security threat, necessitating government intervention. DeSantis, for example, issued an executive order threatening school districts that require masks with funding cuts. But the same government is sitting on its hands when it comes to dealing with the real threat — you know, the one that has killed nearly 40,000 Floridians and has more than 12,000 people hospitalized as of Tuesday.
On Friday, the governor’s appointed state Board of Education will consider a proposed emergency rule that encapsulates that very attitude. The rule would allow parents to use school vouchers to transfer their children out of schools “when a school district’s COVID-19 health protocols, including masking, pose a health or educational risk to their child.”
The proposal would make use of the Hope Scholarship program, which was established by the Legislature to allow bullied children to transfer to another public or private school. The rule appears to equate mask mandates with “harassment; hazing; bullying; kidnapping; physical attack; robbery; sexual offenses,” which are among the types of frightening incidents covered by the program.
It is unclear whether parents who do not want to send their children to a school without a mask mandate will be able to participate in the program. That would only be fair. The Department of Education was still working on the proposal’s language as of Thursday evening.
We have to give DeSantis and his team credit for their foresight. They have created the ideal political adversary: one who is in your face — and on it — easy to understand, and who inspires freedom-seeking protesters at school board meetings. Yes, the masks can be uncomfortable and inconvenient, particularly for children and adolescents. The real enemy, however, is microscopic, complex, and ever-changing as new variants emerge and new data is released, forcing the CDC to change its recommendations and instilling some public distrust.
The passion that a simple piece of cloth arouses in some people can easily be capitalized on in campaign fundraisers and political rallies with crowds of mask-less supporters. Why should they believe the CDC and the majority of pediatricians and epidemiologists? People like Dr. Aileen Marty, a Florida International University infectious disease and disaster medicine expert who advised the school district and other local organizations during the pandemic?
Marty explained to the Editorial Board on Thursday: People, including children, are protected by masks.
“When everyone wears a mask, even if one person has the virus… that person sheds less [virus] into that atmosphere, and those who breathe that atmosphere are less likely to get it.”