The assertion that it’s time to drop the precautions runs counter to current public health strategies.
“Here’s what the science tells anyone who is being honest about it: open the schools, stop wearing masks outside, and everyone at low risk should start living normal lives. Not next fall, or next year — now,” reads the blog post, posted to Facebook on Feb. 8.
KHN-PolitiFact messaged Sexton via his Facebook page to ask if he could provide evidence to back up the statement but got no response.
So we reviewed the scientific evidence and talked to public health experts about Sexton’s post. Overall, they disagreed, noting the ways in which it runs counter to current public health strategies.
Let’s take it point by point.
‘Opening the schools’
In March, when government and public health leaders realized the novel coronavirus was spreading throughout the U.S., many public institutions — including schools — were ordered to shut down to prevent further spread. Huge numbers of students finished the 2020 spring semester remotely. Some jurisdictions did choose to reopen schools in fall 2020 and spring 2021, though others have remained remote.
Throughout the pandemic, researchers have studied whether in-person learning at schools contributes significantly to the spread of COVID-19. The findings have shown that if K-12 schools adhere to mitigation measures — masking, physical distancing and frequent hand-washing — then there is a relatively low risk of transmission.
Here’s some of the latest research that tracks with these positions:
Only seven COVID-19 cases out of 191 were traced to in-school spread in 17 rural K-12 Wisconsin schools that had high mask-wearing compliance and were monitored over the 2020 fall semester.
Mississippi researchers found most coronavirus in children and teenagers were associated with gatherings outside of households and a lack of consistent mask use in schools, but not associated with merely attending school or child care.
Thirty-two cases were associated with attending school out of 100,000 students and staff members in 11 North Carolina schools, where students were required to wear masks, practice physical distancing and wash hands frequently.
Of course, there are some limitations to these studies, which often rely on contact tracing, a process that can’t always pinpoint where cases originate. Some of the studies also rely on self-reporting of mask-wearing by individuals, which could be inaccurate.
Additionally, Hassig pointed out that not all school districts have the resources, such as physical space, personnel or high-quality masks, to open safely.
Sexton’s assertion that schools can reopen leaves out a key piece of information: that safe reopening is highly dependent upon use of mitigation measures that have been shown to tamp down on virus spread.
‘Stop wearing masks outside’
Because the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is relatively new, the research on outdoor mask use is limited. But so far science has shown that masks prevent virus transmission.
Sexton’s post, however, advised that people should stop wearing masks outside. To be sure, public health experts agree the risk of transmitting coronavirus is lower outdoors than indoors. But the experts also said that doesn’t mean people should stop wearing masks.
Overall, the prevailing scientific opinion is that, while it may be OK to go maskless outside if you are physically distant from others, mask-wearing is still recommended if you are around others.
‘Everyone at low risk should start living normal lives’
All the public health experts we consulted agreed this part of the claim is absolutely false. It flies in the face of what scientists recommend should be done to get through the pandemic.
While it’s unclear what exactly the post means by “low-risk” people, let’s assume it’s referring to younger people or those without health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19. And that “living normal lives” refers to no longer wearing masks, physical distancing or washing hands with increased frequency.
Even if a low-risk person doesn’t get severely sick, they could still infect others in higher-risk groups.
“Everyone going back to ‘normal’ right now, especially in the presence of more transmissible and more deadly variants, would be a recipe for further public health disasters on top of what we’ve already experienced,” he added.
The push to “return to normal” is precisely what let the new variants form and multiply, said Vreeman. “If we can ramp up getting people vaccinated and keep wearing masks in the meantime, only then will we have a chance at getting back to ‘normal.’”
Indeed, because of the new variants circulating in the U.S., Walensky and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have urged Americans not to relax their efforts to control the virus’s spread.
A blog post by conservative talk show host Buck Sexton claims scientific evidence shows that right now we should “open the schools, stop wearing masks outside, and everyone at low risk should start living normal lives.”
Scientific research shows that in order for schools to reopen safely, risk mitigation measures must be put in place, such as requiring masks, rigorous hand-washing and limiting the number of students in classrooms. These changes, though, would not represent a return to normal, but a new normal for students and teachers.
The remainder of Sexton’s statement strays further from current science. Research indicates that you’re safer outdoors than indoors, but public health experts still recommend wearing masks in public, even outside. Science does not support the idea that the time is right for some people to resume life as normal. That would allow the virus to continue to spread and have a large human cost in hospitalizations and deaths, said the experts.
Sexton’s post is inaccurate. We rate it False.