GUEST BLOG: Ian Powell – Masks in schools a potential circuit-breaker; but wider strategy and hope also required

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On 22 July it was reported by Stuff that Associate Minister of Education Jan Tinetti had made an important decision on masks in schools.

It is a good decision but still short of what is required to reduce the reproduction rate of Omicron variant of Covid-19 to less than one which is what is required to stop the transmission of the pandemic and protect the health of the public.

New masks in schools policy announced by Jan Tinetti

New masks in schools policy announced by Jan Tinetti

Recently I heard a Paraparaumu school bus driver comment that she normally had 20 children on her bus. But this had dramatically dropped to five due to Omicron. It is a simple but striking story of both the very high transmissibility of Omicron compared with earlier variants, including Delta.

But the story tells more than this. Schools are natural and dangerous mass virus spreaders. They involve medium to large groups of people (mainly younger children and college students) who spend several hours, usually five days a week, indoors.

Then they return home, many of whom taking the virus with them. Public health experts advise that schools are the biggest virus spreaders.

Drifting to laissez-faire

In an earlier posting of Otaihanga Second Opinion (29 March) I discussed how the government had slowly but steadily drifted towards a laissez-faire pandemic response: What makes good public health sense also makes good sense for other things.

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In effect, the positions of Labour and National are now virtually the same but with the former moving to the latter’s position rather than the other way around or meeting in the middle.

The first reported Omicron case detected in Aotearoa New Zealand was on 16 December but, due largely to effective border controls, it was not until February that it began its riotous take-off. This coincided with the start of the school year. Unfortunately, apart from some “encouragements”, the government’s laissez-faire drift had evolved to such an extent that there was no strategic plan to help schools.

Schools were left very much to their own devices and, despite best endeavours, struggled. Omicron’s high transmissibility meant that student and teacher absences were unprecedently high and disruptive. As a virus spreader, families were the first collateral damage followed by wider whānau and the public.

Call for a Covid-19 plan for schools

On 20 May worried public health specialists published in Public Health Expert(University  of Otago) advice to government and other decision-makers on the urgent need for a Covid-19 action plan for schools: Urgent need for schools action plan.

They described the Government’s school policy as “essentially a business-as-usual approach, advising that schools would stay open through the outbreak.” Noting that there have been significant adverse consequences for school communities”, there was a need to “pivot” the pandemic policy in order to take “in-school transmission seriously.”

With winter approaching they outlined the basis of a recommended “Covid-19 Action Plan for Schools to support children’s access to education and to protect children, school staff, and their families from Covid-19 and from the return of other winter respiratory infections.”

Dr Amanda Kvalsvig, one of the eight experts responsible for proposing a schools action plan

 

Although well-argued, it was ignored. It is impossible, at least at this stage, to quantify the effect of this leadership failure on Omicron infections, hospitalisations and deaths. But we can be reasonably confident that the numbers would be discernibly lower.

At last: a change of position

But, on 22 July, a change of government position was reported: Masks in schools enforcement.

Schools are now expected to enforce a “mask wearing policy” for year 4 and above students from 25 July, the start of the third term, and continue until 19 August. The announcement was in the form of a letter to all schools by Associate Education Minister Tinetti.

Schools have also been provided with advice about masks for to communicate with parents and whānau. Stuff reports the response from schools as welcoming the announcement.

Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker (one of the authors of the experts’ call for an urgent schools policy) praised the move while noting the obvious that he would have liked to have seen it sooner. “Limiting transmission in schools will save lives in New Zealand. This is a positive move in the right direction.”

Professor Michael Baker recommends a national mask strategy

 

Baker also called for a national mask strategy, which includes increased mask wearing in schools. “If masks are normalised, there’s less resistance. It’s just like wearing a crash helmet, sunscreen, a hat. Seeing other people do that it strengthens the behaviour. It’s the same with masks.”

Strategy and hope

As welcome as Tinetti’s announcement is, what is lacking is a government strategy towards the pandemic that is targeted, highly visible and gives people hope. This has been a failure of political leadership since last October reinforced by the farce of pretending that the traffic lights system was an alternative protective tool to alert levels.

With the level of disruption now in both the economy and health system, people need to know there is a way out of this crisis. They had hope and confidence under the elimination strategy towards community transmission and our high, by international standards, vaccination rate. Unfortunately, Omicron is too transmissible for an elimination strategy.

Compounding this is the loss of government confidence to provide the political leadership necessary to give people hope. The government wants its association with the pandemic as minimal as possible.

Even the constructive Tinetti decision did not lead to a media conference or even media release. It is as if the Government has been shaken by vociferous anti-vaccination protests including the occupation of Parliament Grounds.

What Aotearoa can do

New Zealand can’t eliminate Omicron. But it can, by taking the measures necessary to reduce transmission, reduce the reproduction factor to less than one. This would stop the pandemic. These come down to two fundamental focuses: mask-wearing and ventilation.

The Tinetti decision for school mask-wearing might be a circuit-breaker in the Omicron response. But this will not occur without a visible, practical and proactive strategy to follow

Schools need thresholds from government on when to continue with or resume mask-wearing post-19 August; when to close classes down; and when to close the whole school down. They need advice on how to plan for seamlessly transitioning to online teaching, where necessary, in order to reduce the disruption.

The Government has made a good start on ventilation by providing CO2 monitors to schools. These devices  help to identify any areas of poor ventilation, allowing the necessary changes needed to keep fresh air flowing. This might lead to new ventilation mechanisms being installed.

The Government should take the lead on the extension of indoor mask-wearing and ventilation in schools and beyond to other indoor venues where people gather, for whatever reason, and public transport.

People deserve hope and it is a government leadership responsibility to do its bit to provide it.

Ian Powell was Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, the professional union representing senior doctors and dentists in New Zealand, for over 30 years, until December 2019. He is now a health systems, labour market, and political commentator living in the small river estuary community of Otaihanga (the place by the tide). First published at Otaihanga Second Opinion

38 COMMENTS

  1. “Recently I heard a Paraparaumu school bus driver comment that she normally had 20 children on her bus but this had dropped to five due to Covid”

    So bus drivers are virologists now? Although to be fair they’re probably better at it than Michael Baker! LOL

    GET REAL! They’re just wagging school

  2. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. Onishambles is here to stay – the later variants are a mild flu for 95-98% of the population and we are now asking 5 years olds and up to correctly wear surgical masks designed to stop blood splatter in order to limit an airborne aerosol virus.

    We learned about superstitious behavior in year 1 psychology in Auckland University where the rat would go back to the food bag even when it was empty if it was fed intermittently. That is our so-called experts and politicians – rats stuck in a game of superstitious behavior.

    Fuck this pathetic little country.

    • Well they are not doing the same thing over again Frank because shit loads of people aren’t wearing masks. How you conclude it doesn’t have a positive impact when droves are not doing anything is beyond me

        • Unless you are the one that dies from this disease Nitrium, then none of the studies are worth that much really. I’d suggest not wearing a mask is like Russian Roulette based on the study that I’d rather take the odds of masks being 9.3% effective.

          • The problem is that children don’t tend to die from Covid. Indeed, Germany (that’s >100 million people) has yet post a single death in an under 12 year old from covid! We’re vaccinating and masking a demographic that isn’t actually tangibly affected by the disease.

          • That’s life bert. How old are you, two?

            People counting lives from Covid have just been driven mad by out of control public health propaganda.

            It’s a shame the vaccinated and boosted are getting sick after they were promised the sun, the moons and stars and got nothing, but put the blame where it belongs. Sensible kiwis aren’t falling for the handwringers’ scams any longer.

        • Isn’t year 4 eight to nine year olds? The study in the UK was up to five year olds.

          The Bangladesh study found 23% reduction in transmission in ages 50 to 60 and 35% in the over 60’s.

          Even the overall effectiveness rate of 9.3% was out 342,000 people. That was for a six month trial period. In terms of our hospitalisation rates I would think statistically masks would make a difference

          • Masking kids won’t affect hospitalisation rates, since it isn’t kids that are going to hospital! It’s really a massive reach to claim that a reduction of 9.3% transmission among children will have a genuine impact on overall hospitalisation rates since kids really don’t interact closely with >65’s (who make up like what 90+%? of hospital cases) outside of school holidays (when they won’t be wearing masks anyway) when parents dump their kids with them.

            • I was actually meaning that masks in general are worth it, not just kids wearing masks. It doesn’t matter if kids are in hospital or not (obviously hopefully not), it about chains of transmission and who they pass it on to.

              That said I don’t claim to have a clue as to how families with year 4 onwards kids interact with older members of the family. Parents with jobs may be using older members more than just at school holiday time.

  3. “Unfortunately, Omicron is too transmissible for an elimination strategy.”
    Untrue.

    It is a choice by the neoliberal Ardern regime to let it rip. It’s easy to contain Omicron with effective governance.

    • While it is fair to describe the government’s actions over Omicron as “let it rip” the combined opposition parties & media had created a culture of denial within the population so a China approach would have been required to achieve the elimination of Omicron which would have had even more negative publicity so was not going to happen. Relying on people to look after their own health is never going to work but forcing them to stay healthy is not something that the government can keep doing also.

      • Imagine the outcry then Bonnie, the Dumb Lives Matter Protests would be a daily occurrence.
        Of course Ardern and her government made a choice, that’s their job and with it the responsibility of their decision. It’s so easy in hindsight to sit on the sidelines proclaiming this is what they should’ve done. So many opinions, with so little responsibility.

  4. if masks and vaccines and lockdowns and trafficlights are all so good why are they not working? This is farcical

    • You muppet. Loads of people are not wearing masks, what f’ing lockdowns are in place (?), and who said vaccines have not had an impact on death rates? No one has said the the vaccine is as effective against omicron as the earlier strains so they have only recommended boosters in high risk people.

  5. Let’s face it: the virus is going to spread no matter what and we have to accept that rather than delay the inevitable.

    The good news is for nearly all people who get it the virus is not even as bad as the flu. Sure some will die WITH covid, but not many at all. Even fewer will die FROM covid ie barely anyone.

    History us going to judge this era very harshly indeed and our “experts” are clowns

  6. Oh god anyone who thinks that Omicron can be stopped is pathetic.
    China has done everything they can including locking their citizens in their homes at the risk of starvation and it still hasn’t stopped it. Every time they think they “have it under control” and loosen their grip, it has a resurgence.

  7. Infection fatality rates for children is very
    very low, so why are kids being the scapegoats for a failed treatment, who are they meant to be protecting exactly?
    The adults who are all vaccinated with the 95% effective at stopping transmission and infection? It’s obviously been such a success.
    Newshub article yesterday on the concerns on children’s health and development, masks being one major contributor, to the concerns, but let’s push the wearing of masks on them even more, ridiculous fucking fearmongering.
    That no one has smashed Baker in the mouth is beyond me, but as a hypochondriac he probably doesn’t leave home.

    Lets follow the science.

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31479137/

    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32167245/

    • Oh dear, so the science tells us that respiratory masks are no better than surgical masks in relation to influenza…

      “Objective: To compare the effect of N95 respirators vs medical masks for prevention of influenza and other viral respiratory infections among HCP.”

      Nothing about the effectiveness of wearing masks compared to not wearing masks in contracting influenza?

      Here’s a heads up Einstein, this is a coronavirus, not influenza. Your research is based on mask comparison, not infection rates on those wearing masks. Your mark, D- “a very poor effort”
      I’d suggest a smack to your own mouth is in order but judging by your attitude and research capability, I’m sure you’ve had one too many knocks to the head already.

  8. I use to watch the UK tv series “Obsessives Compulsive Cleaners”. The fear the OCD series regulars had was outrageous, unscientific yet humorous to watch. They were endearing people and I rooted for an improvement in their conditions.

    The series began to pair some of the obsessives-compulsive-cleaners with hoarders in an attempt to clean their [hoarders] homes and improve the mental health of both groups – a form of exposure therapy.

    As a viewer I remember thinking, “I like these people, but thank God they’re not making the rules for the rest of us”.

    Now, people are free to wear masks and partake in treatments available to them.. however, when it comes to compelling others to do the same – one would be remiss not to ask; “are the inmates running the asylum?”.

  9. I’m tired of the ‘experts’ telling us how to live our lives. Many of my family and friends have had it, from ages 5 to 74 and no one was more ill than with any other winter illness like a cold. A couple of days in bed for the older ones but my kids bounced back within 24 hours. I stopped wearing a mask 3 months ago, not even on public transport of the supermarket. I will never make my kids wear one. Most if the peopel I see wearing them aren’t even N95 and are probably contaminated from taking it out of their pocket with their dirty hands, or gaps so wide I can see down the mask. What’s the point in that?

    • ‘experts’ invented everything you use every single day, including the device you’re spouting on now, riff raf

  10. People are still getting covid regardless if they are wearing masks or not, to enforce mask wearing at schools by punishments and sanctions is just taking things too far and Baker seems obsessed with everyone wearing masks – why? and why are the media not holding his comments to account

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