There is little doubt that the pandemic has exacerbated the fears parents have about their children's well-being. The typical parental anxiety now comes with worries about the latest delta variant of COVID-19 —which appears to spread more easily in children than the initial coronavirus outbreak — questions on whether their children are going to have to wear masks when they go back to school, and anticipation for a yet-to-be approved vaccine for children under 12.
Over a year ago, Salon's Andrew O'Hehir described the mad scramble to reopen schools without a vaccine or coherent safety standards as "a 'Deer Hunter'-style game of Russian roulette, played blindfolded under conditions of complete chaos." One year later, Donald Trump is out of the White House but Republican and Democratic executives alike are all rushing to reopen schools — even as children under 12 are still not cleared to be inoculated despite an 84% jump in the number of children contracting COVID-19 last week alone.
On Thursday, the U.S. set a single-day record for the number of children admitted to a hospital with COVID-19, with 261 children, some less than 1 year old, admitted to U.S. hospitals according to updated HHS figures. Anecdotally, Patricia Darnauer, the administrator for LBJ Hospital in Houston, noted that an 11-month-old girl had to be airlifted more than 170 miles away on Thursday because no pediatric hospitals would accept her. "We looked at all five major pediatric hospital groups and none [had beds] available." As of Sunday, there were only six ICU beds left in the 11-county Austin region.
Pediatric doctors in Texas have taken to Twitter to vent their concerns about rising cases of COVID in very young children. Dr. Heather Haq, a pediatrician at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, said she and her colleagues have been called on to work mandatory overtime shifts because the hospital also has "winter-level patient volumes of acutely ill infants/toddlers with" respiratory syncytial virus (RSV.)
"We're heading into dark times," Texas Medical Center CEO Bill McKeon said last week.
"If children are not masking in schools, it will be a major problem," Dr. Christina Propst told Houston's KTRK in a plea for mask mandates. Recently, Texas overtook New York in terms of total statewide deaths. But Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has banned such mandated precautions — even though we've already seen big camp and daycare outbreaks all summer with the delta variant. And inoculations are severely lagging among teenagers for whom the vaccine is available.
"No governmental entity can compel any individual to receive a Covid-19 vaccine administered under an emergency use authorization," Abbott said in an executive order. "No person may be required by any jurisdiction to wear or to mandate the wearing of a face covering."
The Texas Education Agency said last week that schools don't have to inform parents of positive cases or conduct contact tracing; parents can choose to send a student to school if he or she has been in close contact with a COVID positive case. The agency argued that such precautions will not be required because of "the data from 2020-21 showing very low COVID-19 transmission rates in a classroom setting and data demonstrating lower transmission rates among children than adults."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone — students, teachers, staff and visitors — wear masks in schools. But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, blasted the CDC guidance as "inconsistent" and "unscientific" before banning their required use indoors. Florida currently leads the nation in kids hospitalized for COVID-19, with 32 pediatric hospitalizations per day between July 24 and 30 (a rate of 0.76 children hospitalized per 100,000 residents), CDC data shared with The Tampa Bay-Times shows.
"Why would we have the government force masks on our kids when many of these kids are already immune through prior infection," DeSantis, notably not an immunologist, questioned just as the Sunshine State broke a COVID record, reporting more than 21,000 new cases in residents under 19 years old. He has threatened to withhold funding from districts that require masks. As the New York Times reported over the weekend:
Mr. DeSantis has been unyielding in his approach to the pandemic, refusing to change course or impose restrictions despite uncontrolled spread and spiking hospitalizations — an approach that forced him to undertake the biggest risk of his rising political career.
DeSantis' bigfooting on mask mandates is now even being called out by other Republicans. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., conceded on CNN Sunday, "I do disagree with Gov. DeSantis. The local officials should have control here."
It's hard to watch the actions of Republican executives like Abbott and DeSantis in recent weeks and not conclude that the GOP's death cult has worked its way down to the children. After all, the Republican response to the coronavirus has been, in every facet, a method of leveraging, not solving, the pandemic. The delta variant — more aggressively spread in children — looks to be no different.
In Florida, the state school board backed DeSantis while using the pandemic to prop up charter schools with taxpayer funds, providing vouchers to students who face mask requirements. See the plan here? Schools become so unsafe and inhospitable that parents are forced to push their children into private schools. It's a playbook as old as white flight from school desegregation under the guise of religious freedom. It's why conservatives have spent the pandemic rehashing the culture wars on new fronts — so-called critical race theory in schools and trans students in sports — while preventing all of the measures that would have likely meant a much safer return to in-person learning this fall. Republicans are using children as political pawns again. This time it is most certainly a matter of life and death.