After a tumultuous debate, the Yakima Health District Board of Health recommended to the county’s interim health officer, Dr. Larry Jecha, that masks not be worn by children — a change he said would not happen under his leadership.

The recommendation to Jecha was proposed by county Commissioner Amanda McKinney.

She pointed to a recent study in which researchers looked at COVID-19 hospitalization numbers among children in California, distinguishing those who were hospitalized because of the virus from those found to have the virus upon being admitted to the hospital. She said the study suggested 40% of cases were incidental diagnosis.

McKinney was referring to a study published in Hospital Pediatrics this month, which reviewed 146 records of COVID-19 cases among children at one hospital from May to September 2020. A similar study published this month in the same journal looking at 117 COVID-19 cases in children in a Northern California hospital between May 2020 and February 2021 similarly found a high prevalence of incidental positive cases at 45%.

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McKinney said the studies indicate that the impact of COVID-19 on children may have been exaggerated, and children should not be required to mask even as fully vaccinated adults are able to go unmasked. She moved that the board recommend to Jecha that children not wear masks.

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Jecha firmly disagreed with the proposal, which contradicts the state’s mask mandate and the latest advice from the nation’s pediatricians.

“I disagree, completely. And, you know, we can make things more strict, I can’t make things more lenient,” he said of mandates like masking that are passed down from the state level. “So you can send me something, but until you have a new health officer, it will stay as the state requirement.”

Under state guidelines, masks are required of all individuals 2 and older who are not fully vaccinated. Individuals are considered fully vaccinated two weeks after they receive their final COVID-19 vaccine. Everyone is still required to wear masks in schools, health care settings, correctional facilities, homeless shelters and public transportation.

The vote was 4-3 with McKinney, Yakima Mayor Patricia Byers, Dr. Dave Atteberry, and Commissioner LaDon Linde in favor. Commissioner Ron Anderson, Naila Duval and Dr. Sean Cleary voted against the measure.

Byers, Atteberry and Linde suggested masking children was a benefit to adults rather than children, and said removing the requirement would be in children’s best interest. Some noted mental health challenges among youths during the pandemic.

Duval and Cleary said the Board of Health should not contradict state and national guidance, and expressed concern about youth and community health in the absence of youths masking.

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Cleary pointed to the American Academy of Pediatrics as a key research body to look to for guidance on children’s well-being. He quoted the most recent data from the academy, which indicates that 316 children nationwide have died from COVID-19 as of late May, up from about 296 at the Board of Health’s last meeting three weeks ago, he said.

Cleary also pointed to an increasing rate of COVID-19 infections among children, up from about 2,800 per 100,000 population over two weeks in January to about 5,200 per 100,000 as of late May, he said.

“So they are getting ill, they are infecting each other, and the mask mandate is about protecting the unvaccinated populations from the unvaccinated adults and keeping children safe,” he said.

While severe illness is rare in children, there have been six cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children in Yakima County, according to the state Department of Health. The illness is associated with COVID-19.

The American Academy of Pediatrics continues to encourage kids to wear masks in public, it said in a Wednesday news release, “until (a) COVID-19 vaccine is available for children and uptake in the pediatric population is high enough to prevent transmission.” It did not elaborate on what the threshold was considered to be, but said well-fitting masks should be worn consistently by “anyone who is not fully vaccinated and is 2 years of age or older.”

Both Cleary and the health district’s director of disease control, Melissa Sixberry, echoed this sentiment during the meeting, with Sixberry noting that children under 12 do not currently have access to the vaccine. She said with this in mind, masking among children was important.

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The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is currently available via emergency clearance to individuals 12 and older, while authorization for youth access to the Moderna vaccine is being sought. In Yakima County, youths under 18 are required to have parental permission to receive a vaccine or show proof of emancipation.

Cleary suggested that 70% community immunization is a reasonable goal for herd immunization, based on U.S. vaccination history and eradication with other illnesses.

Navigating the pandemic
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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Reach Janelle Retka at jretka@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @janelleretka