Boise area’s health board nixes COVID masking guidelines. Will it do same for vaccines?

·4 min read
Sarah A. Miller/smiller@idahostatesman.com

Contrary to accepted public health guidance, the health district that oversees the Boise area has moved to remove mask recommendations from its materials and soon might decline to weigh in on COVID-19 vaccinations for children.

Last Friday, the board of Central District Health, which includes Ada, Elmore, Boise and Valley counties, passed a motion to take masking recommendations off its website and out of the materials it distributes to schools and other locations. The move was first reported by Boise State Public Radio.

COVID-19 cases are on the rise again in much of the nation, including in Idaho. The week of May 8, the state’s test positivity rate rose to 5.5%.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that Americans wear masks when there is high COVID-19 activity in a community, which could include schools. Numerous studies have shown that properly worn masks are effective at preventing COVID-19 infections, including one CDC study, published in February, which showed that people who wore high-quality masks were 83% less likely to test positive for COVID-19.

Other CDC studies have shown that masking at schools has reduced the likelihood of COVID-19 outbreaks and case rates.

But members of Idaho’s Central District Health board dispute the scientific and medical community findings.

During a discussion of a meeting agenda item about masking guidelines for schools, the conversation expanded to the topic of masks in general.

Shortly after Russell Duke — the district’s director — discussed peer-reviewed scientific research and said that evidence suggests masking in crowded spaces reduces COVID-19 cases, board members appointed last year by newly elected Republican county commissioners, disputed him.

Raúl Labrador, a lawyer and politician who recently won the Republican primary election to be attorney general, claimed that data on the effectiveness of masks is “negligible at best.”

Labrador said that if the board recommends masks, schools and other locations may feel they have to require them, which he said should be a personal choice.

Ryan Cole, a board member and controversial doctor, went further, saying that masks have “never worked and never will work for any community respiratory virus.” Cole, who has touted unproven treatments for COVID-19 and has spread inaccurate information about the disease and vaccines, also said there is “misinformation and disinformation coming from our own federal agencies.”

The board ultimately moved to remove the district’s endorsement of masks from child-care, school and general resource pages, and to instead offer residents a link to the CDC’s recommendations, said Rachel Garceau, the district’s spokesperson.

Health board considers staying silent on vaccine guidance

After discussing masks, the health board moved on to vaccines for children. In general, the board aligns itself with the country’s primary immunization advisory committee, which is within the CDC, Duke said.

The district currently recommends COVID-19 vaccines for children age 5 or older, Garceau said.

“Our recommendation is pretty standard,” Duke said. “If we were to stay silent on it, it would be the first time ever in the history of public health (that) a public health department would not recommend” the findings of the U.S.’s advisory committee.

According to recent CDC data, children ages 12-15 years who had been inoculated with two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine were 59% less likely to get infected with COVID-19 while omicron variants were predominant. Those ages 5-11 were 31% less likely.

During discussion, Cole asserted that the vaccines are not actually vaccines and said the board should be recommending that children not receive the shots. He also claimed that the vaccine enhances a person’s chances of getting ill with COVID-19.

Cole, who attended the board meeting virtually, said he was in England for a conference and mentioned that he was alongside Dr. Robert Malone, a well-known purveyor of COVID-19 misinformation.

Last Friday, the board set up plans to discuss vaccines further at a later date. If the board decides to change its vaccine recommendations in a future meeting, it could mean more than removing guidelines from its website. Changes could mean that the health district, which operates clinics, would not have providers recommend childhood COVID-19 vaccines to patients, or could have to stop offering them at its clinics, Duke said.

Labrador said he was “concerned” about some of the points Cole raised, and another board member, Elt Hasbrouck of Valley County, said the current COVID-19 vaccines “maybe (are) not real great.”

Duke asked Cole to send him background materials on his perspective on vaccines, adding that he would distribute them to the rest of the board.

“I will forward those to you,” Cole said.

The board has another meeting scheduled for August 19.

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