'It probably even makes it worse': Sen. Marshall questions effectiveness of masks. Experts push back.

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
Sen. Roger Marshall has strong opinions about masks and mask mandates.

Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall has taken aim at face masks, especially at school, as COVID-19 surges across the state.

"I'm against mandates," Marshall said last week during an interview with Newsmax. "I mean, really, no one has convinced me that masks really work, especially for people that have already had the vaccine or natural immunity. The masks might give a little bit of protection to my parents, but I just think that we're kidding ourselves if we think kids wearing masks helps. It probably even makes it worse."

The senator also said, "We know that no child in America has died from COVID unless they had a serious underlying condition."

Marshall is an obstetrician and gynecologist but not a pediatrician nor an epidemiologist. Many pediatricians and epidemiologists don't share his opinion on the efficacy of masks.

Children’s Mercy Hospital infectious disease specialist Jennifer Schuster said last week that masks work.

More:Kansas reports no new COVID school clusters, despite 20% positive test rate in 5-11 years

"Masks have really stopped in-school transmission of COVID-19," Schuster said during a media briefing from The University of Kansas Health System. "We now have a year and a half worth of data where community were surging very high with COVID-19, but there was very little in-school transmission.

"And this was all because schools were implementing universal masking, physical distancing when able and hand hygiene."

Dana Hawkinson, an infectious disease specialist at KU, on Friday cited a CDC morbidity and mortality report in May that showed masking and good ventilation in schools led to a nearly 40% reduction in the incidence rate of COVID-19.

"Research shows that schools where children and adults are consistently masked are effective in preventing the transmission of COVID-19," the American Academy of Pediatrics has said. "COVID remains a serious threat to children’s health. Universal masking can help make in-person learning safe this fall."

The Kansas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics has also recommended that school districts mandate masks for all students, staff and visitors.

"It is critical to use science and data to guide decisions about safely returning children to the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic," the Kansas pediatrician group said in an Aug. 6 statement. "Research shows that if we follow good public health precautions there is very low spread of COVID-19 in schools."

More:How does CDC mask guidance on COVID-19 affect Kansas? For 80%, it's time to mask up.

On July 30, Gov. Laura Kelly and the Kansas State Department of Education issued guidance that recommended schools implement universal masking. In an Aug. 2 news release, Marshall said he "blasts Gov. Kelly for kids' mask mandate."

"Data proves that mask mandates have little if any benefit, especially for school children," Marshall said.

Looking at Roger Marshall's sources

Marshall's statement on mask mandates linked to a Facebook post he made in March that contained a chart comparing COVID-19 case rates in states with mask mandates and states without such public health requirements.

The chart was created by First Trust Advisors for its March 5 COVID Tracker, using numbers since December from The Atlantic's data reporting. Kansas was listed among the states with mask mandates, even though individual counties had the authority to opt out of the governor's order.

"I would agree with the Senator’s conclusion that looking at the case trend in states with and without mask mandates, there was no statistically significant difference that would suggest masks played a difference," said Bryce Gill, an economist at First Trust Advisors, in an email. "I think this is doubly so for school aged children who are at no statistical risk from COVID barring a significant preexisting condition like leukemia."

The First Trust graph shows that case rates generally moved in the same direction at the same time among states with mandates and states without. However, states with mask mandates consistently had lower case rates between early January and early March.

"You point out the difference of maybe 1-5 cases per 100,000 over time, but what’s more important is the trend," Gill said. "Cases rose and fell almost perfectly in unison in both mask and non-mask states. If masks were effective you would expect to see cases rise more slowly and fall more quickly in the mask states and that clearly didn’t happen."

First Trust Advisors shared the dataset behind the graph, which showed the seven-day moving average of daily cases per 100,000 people was, on average, about 8.7% lower in states with mask mandates between Jan. 1 and March 2.

The average difference was about 3.8 fewer cases per 100,000 people per day in states with mask mandates. That equates to about 111 fewer cases per day in Kansas, or about 6,753 fewer cases during that time period.

Researchers at the University of Kansas Institute for Policy & Social Research have previously found that county-level mask mandates in Kansas during the fall and winter led to a 60% reduction in cases, a 60% reduction in hospitalizations and a 65% reduction in deaths.

More:Is COVID-19 surge hurting Kansas counties with low vaccination rates? Here’s the data.

Marshall claimed that masks could "make it worse" for children. His office cited a number of stories and scientific studies about potential risks related to wearing masks.

One was a Townhall story about Florida parents sending their kid's masks to a lab that found "dangerous pathogens" on the masks. Experts have determined the lab analysis is misleading and lacks scientific credibility, according to AFP Fact Check.

"Elected officials at the state and local level must put politics aside, listen to science, and apply common sense when it comes to allowing parents decide what is best for their individual child when it comes to wearing a mask," Marshall said in an emailed statement.

"Real world science shows us this virus disproportionately impacts senior citizens and those with underlying health conditions — not healthy children. These anti-science, inconsistent mask mandates by bureaucrats and politicians are putting children at risk of developmental delays as well as extensive health concerns."

Child deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S.

Two children in Kansas have died from COVID-19, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. An agency spokesperson declined to release information about whether the children had serious underlying conditions prior to their infection or how they were exposed, citing privacy.

When asked about those two deaths and Marshall's claim that "no child in America has died from COVID unless they had a serious underlying condition," a spokesperson referred to studies showing the decreased risk of death among healthy children.

Anecdotal news reports elsewhere in the United States say otherwise healthy children have died from COVID-19. In one example, the Associated Press reported in April that a "Minnesota child under 10 years old with no underlying health conditions has died due to complications from the coronavirus."

Marshall's references include American Academy of Pediatrics state-level data showing that between zero and 0.03% of all child COVID-19 cases have resulted in death.

More:Students embrace return to school as parents fret over what the future might bring

The Academy reports that death and severe illness due to COVID-19 are uncommon among children.

"However, there is an urgent need to collect more data on longer-term impacts of the pandemic on children, including ways the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children, as well as its emotional and mental health effects," the Academy's data report states.

Marshall also cited a peer-reviewed study from the United Kingdom determined that COVID-19 deaths are rare among children and young people, even if they have underlying comorbidities.

However, that study found that six of the 25 children and young people who died of COVID-19 in England during the first year of the pandemic "appeared to have no underlying health conditions."

Another English study, submitted for peer-review and cited by Marshall, found that children and young people are at a greater risk of severe disease or death if they have underlying health conditions.

COVID-19 prevention protects families

Preventing school outbreaks isn't just about protecting the children.

Peter Jouras, a bone marrow transplant recipient, has no immunity to COVID-19, even though he has received two doses of a vaccine.

His doctor, Joseph McGuirk, said during a KU media briefing on Tuesday that "there's a social responsibility that the people need to get vaccinated, not just for their own protection, but for the protection of their loved ones and love thy neighbor." He asked people to wear masks.

Jouras said he is glad his three children — ages 9, 10 and 13 — attend the Shawnee Mission School District, which requires masks. Still, he worries they could bring the virus home.

More:'I don’t think we’ll think of teaching and learning in the same way': COVID-19 challenged Kansas universities

"The boys are too young to get the vaccine," Jouras said. "So fortunately, we're in Shawnee Mission and they mandate masks so there is some additional protection there. ... I don't have any immunity even though I took the vaccine."

Jouras thanked people who get vaccinated.

"Once you have cancer, or transplant or some serious medical thing, your days ... you become very clear minded that each day is very precious," he said. "And so everybody who gets vaccinated, basically, I think about that adding one day to my life."