Four physicians at Williamson Medical Center sent a letter to the Williamson County Schools Board of Education on Saturday, asking for mandatory masks while indoors during the school year and more.
Doctors Tufik Assad, Laura Hunt, Aaron Milstone and Devin Sherman, who are pulmonary and critical care physicians in addition to parents of WCS students, wrote to the board to “strongly request that WCS reassesses its current COVID-19 mitigation policies, and quickly enact recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics, including mandatory masking while indoors.”
Recently, the CDC recommended “universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status,” and the American Academy of Pediatrics similarly recommended universal masking for students and staff above the age of 2.
Both agencies encourage schools to consult with local agencies and experts concerning mitigation strategies, and WCS has cited the county’s vaccination rate (over 50% of the population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19) and low hospitalization rate as informing its health and wellness guidelines, which were released just over a week ago.
The WCS guidelines include a masks “encouraged” protocol but no requirement. The guidelines also state that quarantines and contact tracing are the responsibility of the health department, and the district further shared that it will not be providing seating charts to the health department as it did last year to inform the contact tracing process. Frequent handwashing will continue to be encouraged, according to the guidelines.
However, to the physicians who wrote to the school board, these guidelines are not enough, and hospitalizations are rising.
“After a very difficult year, we were all hopeful earlier this summer that we had gained some control of the Pandemic, and that life could return to some sense of normalcy,” the letter reads. “Unfortunately, we have had this dream shattered over the last 3 weeks, as we have gone from basically no active disease in the community to now having 20 patients admitted to Williamson Medical Center with that number ever increasing.”
Williamson Medical Center shared that, as of Monday, the hospital has 22 COVID-19 patients, seven of whom are in the critical care unit. This is up from the hospital’s three COVID-19 patients just three weeks ago, on July 12.
“If we use Arkansas, Missouri and Louisiana as our crystal ball, our near-term future is bleak,” the doctors’ letter further reads. “Most distressing is the substantially increased number of children that are infected with the Delta strain and that are developing critical illness. The Delta strain, as you may know, is more contagious and aggressive, particularly for these unvaccinated populations.
“We recognize this has been a turbulent year, and that making decisions for the school system during this rapidly changing landscape is challenging at best. However, we truly believe that there can be no greater charge for the leaders of WCS than ensuring the safety of our students and children.
“What happens if one of our students develops severe illness or worse, and there were options available to prevent this outcome that we did not take? Unlike last year, when we were blindly preparing for a school year in the setting of an expanding Pandemic without good information, we now have clear data collected over the past year: In-person school is safe when mask mandates are applied and enforced and coupled with other straightforward mitigation strategies such as distancing and hand hygiene.
“I am told that there are community medical consultants that are helping draft the WCS policies. As critical care physicians that have fought this pandemic tooth and nail on the frontlines in Williamson County for the past 18 months, let us offer our stance: there can be no equivocation on the right decision given the current state of things in our county. The recommendations given by experts are clear, apply to us and we simply must follow them to adequately protect our children.”
While all four physicians work at Williamson Medical, the letter was signed only on behalf of those doctors. Williamson Medical Center provided the following statement to the Williamson Herald:
“WMC supports the rights of doctors practicing here to express their personal opinions about critical healthcare topics such as COVID-19. We also support the rights of WCS leadership to make their own decisions about issues that potentially impact the health of their students, faculty and staff. We have seen firsthand a significant rise in serious COVID-19 cases and encourage our community to follow the guidelines as set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
WCS did not immediately respond for comment.