Virginia's health chief questions effectiveness of masks in school: 'There are downsides to masking'

What happens when doctors disagree on how to stop the spread of COVID?
Posted at 6:09 AM, Feb 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-08 06:09:47-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- For nearly two years, Virginians have relied on health experts for guidance to help protect themselves and others from COVID-19. That includes preventive measures such as masks, vaccines and everything in between. But what happens when doctors begin to disagree on the effectiveness of the mitigation strategies we've been accustomed to?

“There is definitely some disagreement," said Virginia's top health leader, Dr. Colin Greene. "Unfortunately, clearing up any confusion is going to be difficult.”

Greene was appointed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin as Virginia's Acting Health Commissioner. He advises the governor on all issues related to health, including children wearing masks in school.

When it comes to that issue, he said mask-wearing can lead to long-term effects on younger kids.

“There are downsides to masking," Greene said. “A decrease in recognition of emotions, coupled with communication, particularly for people who are hearing impaired.”

Greene also questioned the efficacy of masks, citing anecdotal research showing face coverings offer limited protection from the omicron variant among children.

CBS 6 asked Greene for data, a study or evidence to support that claim. "If you're looking for a clear research answer from a published study, that's going to be hard to find," he said.

Greene said the reasons there isn't clear-cut research yet are because Omicron hasn't been around long enough, and there wouldn't be an ethical way to conduct an ideal study.

“You'd have to take a group of schoolchildren, and you'd have to flip a coin and randomize them and say, 'Oh, you all are going to wear masks, and you all aren't, and we'll see how many of you get sick on each side,'" he said.

Greene explained the lack of research has led to a disconnect in the U.S. medical community. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Virginia Department of Health's Office of Epidemiology, and the Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics all recommend mask-wearing for children ages two and up in school.

However, Greene believes the Commonwealth should take notes from other countries and cities that have dropped mask requirements.

“The CDC equivalent for the European Union does not recommend masking for school children under the age of 12," he said.

CBS 6 also asked Greene if the governor should've waited until after the Omicron surge to make masks optional in school.

"I don't think there was a strong need for that," he responded. "I know it makes people feel better, because they kind of have it in their minds that masking stops COVID, but I think right now the evidence is that masking may or may not stop Omicron."

A study published by the CDC on Friday shows that people who wore cloth masks in indoor settings between February and December 2021 were 56% less likely to test positive for COVID-19 compared to those who didn't wear a mask. Those who wore surgical masks were 66% less likely, and those who wore KN95 masks were 83% less likely.

The data was collected before the Omicron wave hit the U.S.