Fact-check: NC health officials using mask-in-school research properly, doctor says

COVID-19 and schools

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — One of the doctors whose work has been used by state leaders to make decisions about mask use in K-12 grade schools says those officials got the facts right.

“I think they’re representing what the data has shown in their toolkit appropriately,” said Dr. Ibukun Kalu, an infectious disease specialist at Duke University.

She also is part of the ABC Science Collaborative, a team of physicians at Duke and the University of North Carolina that is studying the spread of COVID-19 in schools as the pandemic progresses. The group’s research has been relied upon by state leaders during the past year.

“The ABC Collaborative did a lot of work to help us hone in on what are the things that really prevent the spread of COVID in a school setting,” state Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said earlier this week.

Those remarks came during the state’s announcement that students in elementary and middle schools should be required to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, while unvaccinated high school students should wear face coverings when inside. The recommendations go into effect July 30.

Updated guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says fully vaccinated students and teachers do not have to wear masks. But the American Academy of Pediatrics disagrees, calling for masks regardless of vaccination status.

A previous fact-check by CBS17.com came to a similar conclusion — that state leaders were interpreting the collaborative’s findings in the right way.

Kalu says state leaders are indeed drawing the proper conclusions from its research — but she can’t say that about everyone, pointing out that some groups she did not identify may have selectively misinterpreted its findings.

“That’s happened all through the pandemic,” she said. “It’s somewhat either cherry-picking the data or taking the data out of context.”

The collaborative’s most recent report from late June found North Carolina’s schools were “highly successful” in limiting COVID-19 spread within school buildings, saying only about 1 in 3,000 students who attended in-person classes every day were infected while inside those buildings.

The study highlighted the importance of masking, calling it “the most effective mitigation strategy” to prevent transmission and adding that the state’s Plan A — full, in-person instruction — is appropriate for all grades and schools as long as masks are being worn.

“When people come into the school environment and follow through with mitigation measures … we do not see a ton of spread within the school setting,” Kalu said.

Because kids younger than 12 can’t get the vaccine yet, state leaders say students and adults in elementary and middle schools should continue to wear masks — a move Kalu says the collaborative agrees with.

“Until we can get a completely vaccinated population within schools, it’s probably best to still keep some form of masking,” she said.

Kalu says it might be wise for older students — those in high school — to wear masks as well because of the more easily transmissible Delta variant, which makes up an increasing share of cases across the state.

“High schoolers, in this case, staff members who are vaccinated, a lot of people (are) maybe more comfortable if everyone going back to school is still wearing a mask because we have a slightly more transmissible variant,” Kalu said. “But we do know the vaccines work. And in the right context, if you are vaccinated, you can take your mask off. 

“But we have vaccinated and unvaccinated people that might be mixing,” she added. “So the recommendation, or the encouragement, is still to allow for masking if people prefer, particularly as we return to close, indoor settings over the winter months.”

CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.

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