OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and many of the state’s K-12 schools want to keep masks optional for the state's students, despite the rise of the more contagious delta variant.
They say families can decide for themselves what’s best for their children and that children face a lower risk of coronavirus complications than older, sicker Nebraskans.
“There isn’t any scientific reason to put a mask on a child because they’re not at risk,” Ricketts told 3 News Now Investigators. “So having masks being optional is a fine policy.”
But a group of Nebraska doctors, all of them mothers and many with kids in school, told 3 News Now in an interview that the governor and school leaders should mandate masks if they want to keep kids in school and others safe.
They point out that a quarter of new coronavirus cases in Douglas County involved children under the age of 19, the highest of any age group. And kids ages 5 to 9 are the biggest chunk of those cases.
“This virus, it changes,” said Dr. Christine Mitchell, who organized the 3 News Now interview with 13 local doctors. “The pandemic changes, and we kind of have to change our policies with it.”
The doctors say the delta variant is different. This version of coronavirus is much more infectious than original COVID-19, they say. They're seeing more school-aged children hospitalized locally.
Dr. Melissa St. Germain says masks are able to catch most, not all, but most of those viral particles as they’re coming out of someone’s mouth “so that they can’t get out and infect someone else.”
That matters because the delta variant, without masks, is as contagious as chicken pox, they said, with each infected person infecting about eight more people. The number for the original COVID-19 strain was two.
All 13 of the doctors we spoke with said local school districts should require masks. Thus far in the metro area, only Omaha Westside and Ralston Public Schools have required masks. They require it for elementary school students. Lincoln Public Schools do, too.
“I’m relieved for my own kindergartner,” said Dr. Emily Dietle, who has a kid at Westside. “But I also take care of a lot of kids who fall outside of that range and their parents are extremely concerned.”
Ricketts and other critics of mandating masks say children don’t need them because they face greater risks from car crashes and the flu. But Dr. Aleisha Nabower says the risks to young people are real.
“They can have problems with their heart function,” Nabower said. “They can get blood clots. We can see them get very, very sick. Fortunately, most of the kids recover in the acute period.”
Mitchell worries about her husband who had a heart transplant. She says she wants to reduce the risk that her children bring home the virus and says she is considering keeping them home the first few weeks.
Several doctors described people opposing mask mandates in schools as a loud minority — at least locally. They said school boards need to hear more from parents who want their kids in masks.
Said Dr. Jamie Vitamvas, “I think the officials need to hear that from everybody.”
Several local suburban school districts, including Gretna, Elkhorn and Papillion-La Vista, have discussed a desire to keep masks optional. But elected school boards still have time to weigh in.
Many of the area's larger districts, including the Omaha Public Schools and the Millard Public Schools, are finalizing their plans for the fall. Some could vote as early as Monday on masks.
Dr. Rachel Johnson, an internist and pediatrician, worries about the risk of school districts waiting too long to require masks. She says that’s the fastest route back to at-home learning.
In her experience from last year, that could spur mental health troubles in kids, including suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety.
“It’s gonna be too late and it’s gonna be everywhere, and we’re gonna have schools shut down,” she said. “We have got to prioritize keeping kids in school, and that means masks.”
Said Dietle, “All kids deserve to be able to go to school, have social interaction. We don’t view masks as a way to keep people apart. We view them as a way to keep people together.”
For now, Ricketts has said he hopes school districts won’t mandate masks. Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order last month that threatens state funding to schools that require masks.
Dr. Alison Laflan says she expected schools and elected leaders to follow the masking recommendations of experts like the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Laflan and several other doctors we spoke with recommended that people talk to their doctors if they have questions about the effectiveness of masks and COVID-19 vaccines.
Several of the doctors said too many Nebraskans have turned to like-minded friends on social media, who may be spreading misinformation and disinformation.
“Would you take your cat to a mechanic if they were sick?” Dr. Tifany Somer-Shely said. “If the answer is well, duh, no, then why are you taking your medical information off the Internet?”
And each of them, including Dr. Brianne Kling, said people need to respect the virus. She says she works out, eats well, doesn’t smoke and has no underlying health conditions.
But she “almost died. … I had multiple pulmonary emboli in both lungs, and I was hospitalized in the COVID unit. … If that can happen to me, that can happen to anybody.”
Dietle and the other doctors cautioned superintendents and politicians who point to the past to recommend keeping masks optional.
“It’s like the person who drove home drunk,” she said. “They got home fine last time. That’s great. That doesn’t mean you should keep driving home drunk. Our concern is things have changed since last year.”
3 News Now reporter Jon Kipper contributed to this report.