With vaccines having been widely available to adults for months, people concerned about their vulnerability to COVID-19 can protect themselves. This should mean that requiring children to wear masks in schools to protect adults is no longer necessary. In fact, earlier this year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared, “[Y]ounger children are not major sources of transmission — either to their peers or to adults.” But today’s proponents of mask mandates in schools are now arguing they are needed to keep children themselves safe.
It was obvious from very early on in the pandemic that children faced very little risk from COVID-19. Through Aug. 17, the disease was associated with only 19 deaths in Michigan for people aged 19 and under. That amounts to 0.01% of all the COVID-19 deaths over the period.
When compared to common risks that children face, COVID-19 pales in comparison. They are much more likely to die as the result of an unfortunate accident than they are from COVID-19. According to state data, more children under 19 died last year from poisoning (25) than COVID-19, and the same is true for drowning (19) and choking (62). And 90 children died in car accidents last year, too.
Children in Michigan were also more likely to be the victims of suicide or homicide in 2020 than they were to die of COVID-19. Government statistics show that 71 people under 19 took their own life in Michigan last year. Another 94 were victims of homicide.
There are more than 2.4 million children under 19 in Michigan, so, fortunately, the chance of a child dying from accidents is extremely rare. The same is true for COVID-19, but to an even greater extent. The data shows that for every child who died with COVID-19 in 2020, another 57 died from accidents such as fires, drownings, electrocutions, poisonings, chokings, car crashes, homicides, or suicide. And yet these tragedies receive little attention from public health officials, with so much of their focus devoted to one disease.
Before last year, the idea that students should wear masks in school all day to protect themselves would have been considered extreme. It is historically unprecedented and burdensome to children. The side effects are not well studied or known. But if mask mandates are justified because masks make children safer, than just about any intervention could be justified, too.
Based on the data, public health officials should devote even more energy to preventing deaths from things other than COVID-19. They should be more concerned with limiting access to unsupervised pools, choking hazards and poisonous chemicals. They should focus more on improving students’ mental and emotional health in an effort to prevent suicides. They should do more to keep children away from situations that could result in violent confrontations.
The focus public health officials give to protecting children from COVID-19 is disproportionate to the risk it poses. There are expensive tradeoffs to a laser-like focus on this one disease, but many of them are not yet known. Nevertheless, all the resources used to prevent children from being harmed by COVID-19 are resources that cannot be used to combat threats that data shows should be much more of a concern.
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