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NC health director says cloth masks reduce spread of omicron in schools

Nancy Pierce
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

North Carolina’s health director made the case Thursday for continuing to require masks in schools as the omicron variant of COVID-19 sweeps through the state.

At a state Board of Education meeting, Health Director Elizabeth Tilson acknowledged questions and controversy about face coverings, but said the bulk of studies summarized recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that consistent use of masks is beneficial in schools.

And she said a review of North Carolina’s school clusters — defined as five or more cases in a school related to school spread — shows the same thing. She reported on clusters between Oct. 10 and Dec. 7.

North Carolina Health Director Elizabeth Tilson
North Carolina Health Director Elizabeth Tilson

“In our districts that have mask-optional policies, about 45% of those districts with mask-optional policies reported a cluster, as opposed to 9% of our mask-mandatory districts,” she said.

When Tilson compared the 21 mask-optional districts that had clusters with the six mask-mandatory districts that had them, the optional districts also had more clusters per 100 schools. Still, the majority of districts in both categories had no clusters during that time period.

Board member Amy White noted that vaccinated people are spreading the omicron variant and that some studies show masks have little value against omicron. She said that raises questions about North Carolina’s push for masks and vaccination.

Tilson acknowledged there are contradictions and constant changes in guidance. The state revised its school COVID-19 safety guidelines based on CDC updates last week, and Tilson said she expects another update this week based on another CDC update about using COVID testing to keep students in classrooms.

“It’s all about balancing the risk, doing what we can do to be as flexible as possible but lower the risk of spread as much as possible,” Tilson said. “No one strategy is perfect… It is the layered prevention strategy that will lower the risk as much as possible.”

Tilson also told the board the state is about to send order forms to school districts for N95 masks for staff, though she didn’t say how quickly they’ll be distributed or how many are available. That kind of mask, which many experts say is needed to fight the omicron variant, will not be distributed for students.

“With children what’s particularly important is the comfort and the fit of that face covering,” Tilson said. “We have some N95s in our warehouse. They are adult size. They are not terribly comfortable but we will be sending them out to adults. Those are not well-fitted for children.”

She said multi-layered cloth masks that fit well still provide “good protection” against the omicron variant.

Copyright 2022 WFAE

Ann Doss Helms covers education for WFAE. She was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for 32 years, including 16 years on the education beat. She has repeatedly won first place in education reporting from the North Carolina Press Association and won the 2015 Associated Press Senator Sam Open Government Award for reporting on charter school salaries.