Following the lead of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, some state officials are demanding that Oklahoma institute a statewide mask mandate—including for school children.
Mandate supporters, a group that includes teachers’ union leaders and Democratic politicians, claim a mask mandate will prevent the spread of COVID-19. But research indicates most Oklahomans are already wearing masks, and COVID case numbers continue to rise. In addition, data on mask effectiveness is often conflicting.
At an August 13 event, Biden endorsed a nationwide mask mandate, although he provided no details on how it would be enforced.
“Let’s institute a mask mandate, nationwide, starting immediately,” Biden said.
Biden’s call has been echoed locally by Democratic lawmakers and the Oklahoma Education Association, which endorsed Biden in this year’s presidential race.
At a Tuesday press conference, House Democratic Leader Emily Virgin of Norman called on Gov. Kevin Stitt to impose a statewide mandate for mask-wearing.
“Anyone who knows anything about seat-belt laws knows that this isn’t an issue of freedom,” Virgin said. “This is an issue of public safety and saving lives.”
Virgin said the mandate should include all schools.
In a recent release, OEA President Alicia Priest said schools may be a source of contagion.
“When you put teachers and students together in close proximity like a classroom, we have a responsibility to take every precaution we can,” Priest said. “School should be a place of learning rather than where children and teachers go to get sick or take the virus back home to their families.”
Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy CEO Joe Dorman, whose organization is working with the OEA to lobby the State Board of Education to mandate mask-wearing in all schools, recently wrote that officials “know children are at risk,” citing a single instance of a Kindergarten student in Texas who died from complications due to COVID-19.
Dorman argued Oklahoma children at risk from COVID-19 include “almost a third of our children” who are “considered either overweight or obese,” another 123,100 who have (or previously had) asthma, and those diagnosed with childhood cancer.
Calls for a statewide mask mandate, including at schools, come despite ongoing and widespread use of masks in Oklahoma.
In August, a survey conducted by the Oklahoma State Department of Education found 346 school districts, or 65 percent, had some form of mandatory mask policy in place for teachers or both staff and students. Those that didn’t have such policies were typically small, rural schools in areas with little or no COVID-19 spread at the time. Dorman’s column indicated the share of schools with mask policies has since risen to 80 percent.
Similarly, although some critics blame a lack of mask-wearing for increased COVID-19 infections in Oklahoma, polling by the Pew Research Center showed nearly all adults were wearing masks as far back as August.
Pew reported that 85 percent of adults—in a region that included Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana—reported that in the prior month they had worn a mask or face covering when in stores or other businesses all or most of the time.
But Dorman argued less than half of schools maintain what he called “a sufficient masking policy.” He warned that the “result will be students exposed to COVID-19 and carrying it back to their parents and caregivers, who themselves are more likely to be compromised than the children.”
While critics such as Priest and Dorman have suggested schools are a nexus of COVID-19 infection, schools that have been open for full-time, in-person instruction this year have reported very little spread of the virus linked to school activity. At schools ranging from Moore to Stilwell, district leaders have reported a very low percentage of positive cases among students and staff, and in nearly all instances those infected contracted the virus outside of school.
Publicly available COVID-19 data shows that school-age children have contracted the virus at a relatively low rate. While the U.S. Census estimates that 24.1 percent of individuals in Oklahoma are younger than 18, as of Nov. 10, Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) data showed just 11.7 percent of COVID-19 cases in the state were individuals in that age range.
OSDH reports that just 13,803 school-age Oklahomans—those between ages 5 and 17—have contracted the virus so far this year. Last year, there were more than 700,000 students in Oklahoma public schools and tens of thousands more who attended private school or homeschool.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the survival rate for individuals aged zero to 19 who are infected with COVID-19 is 99.997 percent. It’s estimated the risk of a child dying from the season flu remains much higher than a child’s risk of dying from COVID-19.
Mandate supporters claim masks reduce virus transmission, pointing to a state report that showed reported COVID-19 cases have recently increased by a much larger percentage in areas without a mask policy than in areas with a mask ordinance.
However, that report, which covered data from Oct. 30 to Nov. 5, showed that per-capita infection rates in both mask-mandate and non-mandate areas were similar. There were 27.4 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population in areas with mask mandates, and 30.3 per 100,000 population in areas without mandates, based on a seven-day average number of cases.
Throughout August and September, the report showed the per-capita rate was higher in mask mandate areas. Since October, the rate has been higher in non-mandate areas, although not dramatically so.
From Sept. 1 to Nov. 1, cases in mask mandate areas increased from 18 cases per 100,000 population to 27.4. In non-mandate areas, the rate increased from 17.3 cases per 100,000 people to 30.3.
Because most mask mandates have been imposed in areas with large populations, the per-capita rate of infection can surge dramatically in rural, non-mandate areas with only a very small raw number of cases, sometimes a literal handful, while the per-capita rate in urban areas that mandate masks can be lower despite far larger raw numbers of COVID-positive residents.
Some communities with no mask mandate continue to have a lower number of positive COVID-19 cases than comparable communities with a mask ordinance. And urban areas that have had mask ordinances in place for months continue to have COVID-infection rates in line with the city’s share of the state population, not rates far below the communities’ share of the population as might be expected based on the claims of mandate proponents.
For example, based on data posted by the Oklahoma State Department of Health as of Nov. 10, the city of Edmond has 903 active COVID-19 cases while Broken Arrow has 687. Yet Edmond has a mask mandate in place, while Broken Arrow does not. Broken Arrow has a significantly smaller number of active COVID-19 cases than Edmond despite Broken Arrow having a slightly larger population (over 109,000) than Edmond (more than 93,000).
The population of Oklahoma City, which has had a mask ordinance in place for months, represents about 16.4 percent of the total state population. Despite requiring citizens to wear masks, the share of Oklahoma City residents who had active cases of COVID-19 on Nov. 10 — 3,417 of the 20,632 active cases statewide— still represented 16.5 percent of all cases.
Similarly, mask-mandating Norman is home to 3.1 percent of the Oklahoma population but accounted for 3.7 percent of active COVID-19 cases as of Nov. 10.
At a Tuesday press conference, Stitt again urged Oklahomans to wear masks but said he would not issue a state mandate, which he has previously said is unenforceable.
“Wear your mask. Watch your distance. Make sure we’re separating, we’re washing our hands,” Stitt said. “But as far as a mandate, I’ve been very clear that I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.”
The governor said Oklahomans need to exercise “personal responsibility,” and noted that when other states attempted to reduce virus spread through government coercion, those states have not always fared better than Oklahoma.
“Illinois, for example, you can’t eat at a restaurant inside,” Stitt said. “Oklahoma’s been fully reopened for the past six months. They have mask mandates. None of the restaurants are open for in-dining. They’re limiting all across the board, and yet their cases are higher, per capita, than Oklahoma’s. So at the end of the day, it’s not about a mandate. It’s about doing the right thing.”