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DeWine Asks Schools To Require Masks, Won't Issue Mandate Due To State Law

Gov. Mike DeWine at his daily coronavirus press conference on April 7, 2020.
Office of Gov. Mike DeWine
Gov. Mike DeWine at a coronavirus press conference on April 7, 2020.

Ohio’s children’s hospitals are overwhelmed due to an unprecedented increase in COVID-19 cases and other respiratory illnesses, and in some cases are having to turn patients away, Gov. Mike DeWine said in a press conference Tuesday.

“We are in a crisis right now. We are at exceedingly high numbers right now. They are not going down," DeWine said.

DeWine is calling on schools to require students and staff to wear masks during the school day to curb the spread of these viruses, but stopped short of issuing a mandate for all schools - citing legislation passed by his own party.

“If I could put on a statewide mask mandate, if the health department could, we would do it ... The legislature has made it very clear that if we put on a mandate for kids in schools to wear a mask, that they will take it off," DeWine said. "I'm counting, frankly, on the good will of our school boards, the good will of the people of the state of Ohio."

Senate Bill 22, which passed in March, allows lawmakers to strike down any health orders or mandates from the governor or the state health department. DeWine vetoed the bill, but Republican lawmakers quickly overrode the veto.

Meanwhile, hospitals in some regions of the state are now having to turn people away due to not having enough beds or staff for patients seeking treatment for any medical emergency - not just COVID-19.

Paula Grieb, chief nursing officer at ProMedica Russell J. Ebeid Children’s Hospital in Toledo, said Monday night, all Lucas County hospitals were on bypass – meaning emergency rooms could not accept any more patients – including the children’s hospital.

"This is an unprecedented event for us, and one that's ... more than a bit frightening for us as well," Grieb said. "It speaks to the volume of sick people that are being managed in our systems as a whole."

Four hospitals were able to come off of bypass status Tuesday, including the children's hospital, she added.

The children's hospital in Dayton currently has only two beds available, excluding the neonatal intensive care unit and behavioral health unit, said CEO Debbie Feldman.

"One day last week, we had 40 families leave [the emergency department] without their child being seen. On any given day under normal circumstances ... we have zero children leave without being seen," Feldman said.

Since Aug. 15, 29,000 school-age children have contracted COVID-19 in Ohio, DeWine said. In the last 19 days, the case rate for children has been 909 cases per 100,000 residents, compared to 561 cases in the adult population. The sharp uptick in COVID-19 is driven by the highly contagious variant, DeWine said.

Even the Ohio county with the lowest case rate – Holmes County – is reporting 341 cases per 100,000 residents, DeWine said. That's still three times the rate considered "high incidence" by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said.

Leaders of the Ohio Children’s Hospital Association called on school superintendents to require students and staff wear masks to better protect children and try to remove some of the burden children's hospitals are facing.

Currently, 54.4% of K-12 students in Ohio attend a school with a mask requirement, DeWine said.

“We recognize this doesn't have to be forever. As we see the incidence of the virus decline in our communities, we can re-look at this,” Feldman from Dayton Children’s said. “But for now, the most important thing we need to do is ensure that our hospitals are available for every child who needs us, and keep our kids in school."

Data collected by local health departments and hospitals shows students in schools that do not have a mask mandates are significantly more likely to test positive for the virus, Feldman added.

According to data collected by health officials, of the 1,070 students in Summit County schools who were required to quarantine since Aug. 16, just 23 of those students were from schools that had mask mandates.

After the Akron Children's officials shared that data with school officials, some districts opted to require masks, Feldman added, which resulted in quarantines dropping 72%.

"We know this can work, and we know we owe it to our kids to make this happen," Feldman said.

Another study of students in schools in the Cincinnati area showed kids were twice as likely to test positive for COVID-19 if they were in a school with a partial mask mandate, compared to kids in schools with a full mask mandate, said Dr. Patty Manning of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

"I plead with you, as school leaders, as superintendents, as school board members, as community members to put lots of pressure on your school leaders," she said. "Please do this small, small thing and allow children to be masked in school in every grade, all grades, and please get vaccinated. It means everything right now."

DeWine and the hospital officials also recommend children who are eligible should get vaccinated. The Pfizer vaccine is currently authorized for children age 12 and over.