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Montana, Utah Governors Spread Mask Misinformation As Schools Open And Delta Variant Surges

Protective surgical mask resting on top of a student desk within a clean contemporary classroom
Lynden Alexander Brass
Adobe Stock

Some Republican political leaders in the Mountain West are casting doubt on the effectiveness of wearing masks in schools, drawing condemnation from the medical community as the COVID-19 delta variant drives case counts to their highest levels in months and children under 12 remain ineligible to get vaccinated.

On Tuesday, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte issued a rule urging schools to let kids opt out of wearing masks for various reasons, including “moral conviction.” He panned "arbitrary mask mandates" and claimed "a lack of meaningful, reliable research" on whether they protect kids.

Gianforte's office sent out a 13-page document that cherry-picks from studies and articles to suggest that the science around the protectiveness of masks in schools is inconclusive, and that wearing them can be detrimental to children’s health and wellbeing.

The Montana Medical Association, Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Montana Association of Pediatric Psychiatrists, Montana Nurses Association and Montana Primary Care Association issued a joint statement that said the rule "undermines an effective, proven public health measure to help keep our kids in school and our emergency rooms open.”

Katie Loveland, a public health consultant and former Montana Department of Health and Human Services staffer, wrote on Twitter that Gianforte's document is "truly the most terrible misrepresentation of evidence I've seen in public health in my 15 years of public health practice in Montana."

In Utah – where 39,000 children are expected to test positive for COVID-19 in September, according to the state epidemiologist – Gov. Spencer Cox this week also claimed, without evidence, that “masks are not as effective as most of the pro-mask crowd are arguing."

Cox's statement comes as Utah medical professionals are already struggling to overcome, as The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported, the "two big hurdles in getting students to wear masks at school this year: state lawmakers and misinformation."

David Pate, a retired physician and member of the Idaho governor’s Coronavirus Work Group, likens masks to a Kevlar vest – it can help stop a bullet but isn't guaranteed.

“Masks unquestionably work but they are not failproof," he said.

Even a recent CDC study that Gianforte's office cited concluded that "COVID-19 incidence was 37% lower in schools that required teachers and staff members to use masks and 39% lower in schools that improved ventilation."

A recent analysis from the Environmental Protection Agency showed that N95 masks were about 95% efficient in filtering out small respiratory particles such as the coronavirus. Regular cloth masks, however, varied widely. Some were only 28% efficient while others hovered near 50% efficiency.

But Pate says some protection is better than none because the delta variant is much more contagious than last year’s COVID-19 strain.

“I don’t think the general population understands what a scary situation this is and what it can mean to them and their families,” he said.

Meanwhile, Montana’s largest hospital is asking Gianforte to deploy the National Guard to assist doctors and nurses, a teenage girl in Salt Lake City just died of the coronavirus, an outbreak at a school district in Wyoming has forced it to go virtual, and a hospital official in Idaho said Thursday that health care providers are now facing the “most extreme” conditions the state has ever experienced.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Nate is UM School of Journalism reporter. He reads the news on Montana Public Radio three nights a week.
Matthew Frank
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