Questions about Youngkin's covid strategy focused on science – The Washington Post


Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) has made parental choice in the classroom — when it comes to masks and also curriculum — the centerpiece policy of his campaign and government. He signed an executive order hours after inauguration essentially making masks optional, has fended off multiple lawsuits objecting to the policy and on Wednesday signed a bill that enshrines the policy into state law.
But as he pressed forward, people who form the backbone of public health services in Virginia lodged questions and concerns about the science behind statements that undercut the effectiveness of masks, according to internal emails obtained through an open records request.
Epidemiologists and health directors asked Youngkin’s pick for state health director, Colin Greene, how they should answer questions from residents and school officials.
The people in charge of implementing the state’s new guidelines wanted to see the research and data behind claims that masks stop working if they are dirty, hamper children’s development and ability to communicate, and could cause greater emotional risk than coronavirus itself, as well as the statement that masking made no difference in curbing the spread of the omicron variant in Virginia
The questions highlight the tensions of decision-making in a complex political environment, as scientists counsel caution but leaders face increasing pressure from parents and businesspeople to return the country to normalcy.
With new omicron infections and hospitalizations receding, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) last week dropped the requirement for residents to show proof of vaccination to enter most businesses and is poised to end the indoor mask mandate. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) asked the State Board of Education to rescind its mask policy.
For politicians on the cusp of Year Three, it’s no longer enough to defer to the federal government as the vocal minority grows more tired of masks and other mitigation strategies, no matter how well they work.
“The evidence is clear and unambiguous that face masks when worn consistently in indoor public spaces they both prevent transmission and minimize the amount of virus in the air,” said Neil J. Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
However, he noted transmission hasn’t been studied extensively in children in the past two years.
“Ultimately what it comes down to is there is one camp that says we don’t know for sure and we want to be as safe as possible. And there’s another camp that says we don’t know for sure so we don’t want them,” he said.
Emails between state health officials and Greene illustrate the push and pull happening behind the scenes.
Flouting CDC, Youngkin health chief wants to help Virginia move on from covid
The questions began days after Youngkin signed the executive order making masks optional in schools, which formed the basis of health department’s “Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in Virginia PreK-12 Schools.”
On Jan. 21, Laura Forlano, deputy director of the office of epidemiology, relayed to Greene a question “from the field” seeking a source for a statement in the guidance: “During the Omicron outbreak, regions with restrictive masking policies and practices have shown similar rates of transmission as regions with less restrictive mask policies.”
She added, “I did not write this, so I don’t know the source reference.”
Greene responded that he used “observational data taken from our dashboard” in late December and early January that showed the omicron variant spread much more rapidly in urban and suburban areas than elsewhere.
That’s when state epidemiologist Lilian Peake chimed in: “Colin, You have selected data to create a hypothesis. I think it is premature to include that in a policy document. I recommend referencing studies that are designed to control for confounding factors.”
Greene responded: “Lilian, I hear what you’re saying, and if this were a presentation at a symposium, I might agree with you, but it’s not.” He went on to say, “The statement makes no claim of causality, nor that other factors might not be involved; it is merely an observation.”
Peake said she would ask Deloitte, the firm with a state contract to assist with the pandemic response, to search for studies that may back up Greene’s claim.
When Forlano wrote back with what she termed a “friendly reminder” of outstanding requests for the scientific backup, Green said: “You’re welcome to let them know it came from VDH dashboard data, unless there is a better citation found.”
Finally, Peake forwarded Greene a report from Deloitte that concluded: “Hospitals that predominantly serve patients from areas without masking requirements continue to see the highest rate of growth in hospitalizations.”
The governor’s order states that masks “inhibit the ability of children to communicate, delay language development, and impede the growth of emotional and social skills. Masks have also increased feelings of isolation, exacerbating mental health issues, which in many cases pose a greater health risk to children than covid-19.”
The interim guidance issued by the health department for schools makes a similar point, saying that “mask-wearing may cause discomfort, skin irritation, anxiety, and otherwise impact a child’s emotional state; children may have difficulty communicating, perceiving emotion, or making social connections when wearing masks.”
Greene, through a health department spokesperson, said “there are a number of European studies supporting” the claims and said he could provide references. The spokesperson pointed to three dozen studies listed at the bottom of a 14-page guidance document for schools, which covered everything from vaccines and physical distancing to when to report cases.
Rian Watson, a mother of a 6- and a 9-year-old and resident of Frederick County, in the region that Greene formerly represented as health director, wrote to him on Jan. 17, saying she believes Youngkin’s order “contains inaccurate information, is based on an opinion instead of scientific data and does not reference where he got the information. His order and decision reads as an opinion piece rather than based on scientific information.”
In a phone interview on Tuesday, she said her children have no problem wearing masks — they keep a basket of them by the door — and she worried dropping the requirement in schools would increase community spread, especially among the unvaccinated and at-risk, such as her elderly parents that lived with the family for a time.
“This really isn’t a health order, it’s kind of an un-health order,” Watson said.
Denise Bonds, director of Blue Ridge Health District, which is based in Charlottesville, in a Jan. 18 email to Greene said her constituents were asking for the science that supports statements in the order claiming that masks worn by children “are often ineffective because they are made from cloth material, and they are often not clean, resulting in the collection of impurities, including bacteria and parasites.”
Greene responded that evening telling Bond that it is “intuitive” that cloth masks would not work as well if they are unclean. “After being worn all day, it would be hard to argue that a mask would not collect materials from the mouth and nose, which we all know are teeming with bacteria, so by deductive reasoning the mask, which is designed to capture droplets, will capture the bacteria, too. We don’t need a study to show that,” he said. (The exchange was first reported last month in the Virginia Mercury.)
Reached by The Post on Tuesday, Bonds declined to comment.
Although masking has raised ire, public health leaders — including Nancy Welch, director of the Chesapeake Health District and the state’s longest-serving health director — praised Youngkin’s promotion of vaccines, especially in rural parts of the state where vaccine uptake has lagged behind the urban centers.
“We have a tendency to lump people in categories based on affiliation,” Welch said. “This is a situation where that is not necessarily the case. The governor has been a very, very strong proponent of vaccination, as was Gov. Northam. And I’m not sure many people expected him to be as strong a proponent.”
Youngkin has traveled to Abingdon and Petersburg to talk about ways to increase vaccination rates, and on Monday his office released a video featuring Youngkin, wearing his trademark fleece vest, in a Richmond diner encouraging people to get vaccinated, while mentioning his philosophical objection to coronavirus vaccine mandates.
The video was written and produced, pro bono, by Poolhouse, the Richmond-based advertising firm that made the campaign videos that helped introduce the first-time candidate to Virginians. John Littel, the state health and human services secretary, asked the company to create the public service announcement for the Virginia Department of Health, Poolhouse co-founder Will Ritter said in an interview.
“With saving lives as his primary goal, the governor is actively encouraging as many people as possible to get the coronavirus vaccine because it is the best way to protect against severe illness and death,” Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said in a statement.
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