State still calls for masks at schools

Published 8:49 pm Thursday, July 1, 2021

State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver said anyone aged 5 and up while indoors at a public or private K-12 school in Virginia must continue to wear a mask, despite the COVID-19 state of emergency expiring June 30.

Oliver said his order of public health emergency would be in effect from July 1 through July 25, and federal law still requires masks on planes, transit buses, school buses, trains and other forms of public transportation.

“We really do encourage younger children to continue to wear masks when they are in public settings,” said state vaccine coordinator Dr. Danny Avula in a recent interview. “Outdoors, not as concerning. We’ve really been reassured that the risk of transmission in outdoor settings, particularly when we’re seeing such low rates of COVID in many communities across Virginia, that’s not as high risk a scenario, and there won’t be much of a need for younger children to wear masks.

“But when younger children go to indoor spaces, whether you’re taking them to the grocery store or shopping or to church, those would be good times to ensure that your younger children are wearing masks. But otherwise, for those who are 12 and up who have been fully vaccinated, we’re going to embrace the CDC guidance that says, if you’ve been fully vaccinated, you don’t need to wear masks in most settings.”

The Virginia Department of Health, in a news release, said public health officials encourage state residents to continue to wear masks to help stop the spread of COVID-19 “as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and allowed by state law. Even when not required, those who are fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks when they are more comfortable in doing so.”

That’s a message Avula shared.

Though the state health department said it is “not generally necessary” to wear masks outside, those who are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks in crowded settings, especially in areas with a high number of cases.

Gov. Ralph Northam, in an interview with the Suffolk News-Herald during a recent visit to the city, said people should continue to have the option to wear masks. He said then, and has reiterated in other statements, that he has made it clear to law enforcement that they should not be harassing or arresting anyone for wearing a mask.

“There is no legal barrier to wearing masks to protect oneself and others from the virus, nor should anyone be penalized for doing so,” a statement from the state department of health said. “While the law prohibits wearing a mask for the purpose of concealing one’s identity, it does not prohibit wearing a mask for the purpose of preventing the spread of COVID-19. This is true even now that Virginia is no longer under a statewide declaration of emergency.”

It said the businesses “are generally free” to implement their own mask requirements, and noted employees at some businesses may still be required by state regulations to wear masks even if they are fully vaccinated.

“Masks may be especially important now that recent cases of the delta variant has been identified in Virginia,” the state health department said.

Health officials said the variant spreads more easily and could cause more severe illness. The state health department said current COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the delta variant, but wearing masks and taking other measures such as keeping one’s distance from others, washing hands frequently and cleaning surfaces help lower the risk more.

The percentage of all people in Western Tidewater who have been fully vaccinated ranges from 34.7% in Southampton County, to 38.4% in Suffolk, 39% in Franklin, 44.1% in Surry County and 45% in Isle of Wight County, according to state health department data from July 1.

Among those in the 10 to 19 age group, 3,100 people in Suffolk have received at least one dose, and 2,232 have been fully vaccinated. In Isle of Wight County, 1,413 people have been vaccinated with at least one dose and 1,091 are fully vaccinated. In Southampton County, 274 people have received one dose and 186 have been fully vaccinated. Among Franklin youth, 173 have received at least one dose, and 107 have been fully vaccinated.

The 7-day positivity rate for COVID-19 ranges from 0% in Surry and Isle of Wight counties, to 1.63% in Suffolk, 3.06% in Southampton County and 4.17% in Franklin.

“We’re in such a different place,” said state vaccine coordinator Dr. Danny Avula. “In large part, we can attribute that to … the large number of people who have gotten vaccinated.”

Avula said he expects an uptick of COVID-19 cases in the fall and winter, and will continue to work to get more people vaccinated. While the state has reached a 70% target to have adults 18 and up receive at least one dose of a vaccine, the overall population fully vaccinated is 50.8%.

For children under 12, Avula does not expect an approved vaccine to be available until at least October or later.

“We all want to protect our children from the impact of this virus,” Avula said. “I think if you’re a parent of a child, the best thing you can do is to get vaccinated yourself. If your children are 12 and up, they also are now approved to be vaccinated, so let’s get our adolescents vaccinated.”