In addition to my role as chief medical officer, I am also a pediatric emergency medicine physician and father of three. Throughout this pandemic, I have gone to work trusting in our policies and personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep me safe from COVID-19. I was fortunate to be one of the first in line to receive the vaccine. We have been lucky that COVID has impacted children less, but I’ve seen firsthand the hardships this pandemic has wrought on kids. I’ve treated toddlers sick with complications of COVID-19 and talked with adolescents who were suicidal after a year of social isolation.
Now, more than ever, I am worried about my children. While my two boys are vaccinated, I worry every day about my 10-year-old daughter because she cannot be. What does bring me some comfort is the fact that as a fifth grader, she chooses to wear her mask to class. But she’s one of the few kids who do.
The Children’s Colorado system is seeing more children testing positive for COVID-19, including in Colorado Springs. We’ve also seen an earlier-than-normal season of respiratory viruses like RSV, a rising number of children experiencing anxiety and depression, and a shortage of health care professionals to care for patients. Inpatient volumes are running more than 20% higher than normal for this time of year and pediatric intensive care unit volumes are running 60% higher. This week, our Colorado Springs emergency department had a record 150 children come for help in one day.
Face coverings are necessary to protect our children from the physical risks of the virus and the mental and emotional risks of outbreaks and school closures. That’s why I am calling on officials, school leaders and parents to do everything possible to ensure that masks are worn in school settings.
With the delta variant, one unmasked child with SARS-CoV-2 can potentially infect five to six kids in a classroom rather than one to two with the initial variant. There’s a much higher risk of outbreaks that could lead to school closures, which are detrimental for kids. As a parent whose daughter missed her friends terribly last year while learning at home, I know just how vital in-person learning is for our children’s physical and mental health.
Youth depression and anxiety were rising before the pandemic, and the isolation and uncertainty of the past 18 months made it worse. Since kids under 12 are not eligible for the COVID vaccine and less than half of Colorado adolescents and teens have been vaccinated, face coverings are crucial to keeping children learning in-person. And, while studies show that masks prevent disease transmission, none show that they damage children’s mental health.
I believe that school staff and students should wear masks indoors at schools and child care centers. Under normal circumstances, I would agree that masking should be a decision made by each family. But as an ER doctor, I can tell you that these are not normal circumstances. During a pandemic when our hospital capacity and children’s physical and mental health are on the line, universal masking policies are needed. Children are more likely to keep masks on when everyone around them is, too, and in addition to preventing outbreaks and hospitalizations, universal masking policies will reduce the likelihood of bullying tied to mask wearing and reduce uncertainty, two additional sources of anxiety for kids.
As a dad, I am proud of my daughter for choosing to wear her mask at school to protect herself from COVID and other respiratory viruses. As an emergency room physician and a dad, I wish more of the kids around her were wearing masks to protect her and themselves.
The best thing for kids is to keep them healthy, prevent outbreaks, and keep them in school with their teachers and friends — and masks are an indispensable tool for doing that.
Michael DiStefano, M.D., is a pediatric emergency medicine physician and chief medical officer of the Children’s Hospital Colorado Southern Region. He’s also the father of three children.