Delta variant ‘spreading quickly among kids, adolescents’ in ‘unmasked situations,’ pediatrician says

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U.S. Rep Mary Miller’s mask tweet ‘just not true,’ pediatrician says

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — A leading pediatrician who works in the emergency room to handle sick children says he supports the statewide mask mandate in school classrooms as data shows the Delta variant can spread much more quickly in unmasked, indoor settings.

Below is a transcript of our interview with Dr. Doug Carlson, the Medical Director of St. John’s Children’s Hospital and Chair of the Department of Pediatrics, who began the conversation shortly after hanging up the phone from a conversation with hospital attorneys about the potential to require employees to be vaccinated.

Mark Maxwell: The legal implications of… What are your lawyers telling you? You said mandating vaccines? Is that right?

Dr. Doug Carlson: Yeah. I think broadly, we’re looking at mandated vaccines. Court systems in the United States, including our federal jurisdiction, has said that employers have the right to mandate vaccines.

Maxwell: But does government?

Dr. Carlson: That, uh, I’m not a governmental expert,

Maxwell: But you’re looking at your employees here.

Dr. Carlson: We are looking at employees. I know, at SIU and the hospital systems, we’re looking carefully at whether we should mandate vaccines to keep ourselves, and more importantly, our patients and the population healthy.

Maxwell: What about those people who say, ‘You’re discriminating against my personal choice to put something inside of my body, I work here as an employee, you can’t tell me to do that.’

Dr. Carlson: There are consequences to not getting the vaccine, and those consequences are potentially harming others. So we weigh that carefully, but believe that there are consequences to others that outweigh the ability to say, ‘I’m just not doing it.’

Maxwell: Alright, let’s talk about the mask rule. First of all, I wonder, do you think the CDC might have cost a little bit of credibility with the public with a month ago saying, ‘if you’re vaccinated, you can take the mask off in class,’ and now they’re coming back and saying, ‘No, wait, wait, put it back on.’

Dr. Carlson: I realize it gets confusing. But science is not stagnant. Science and our ‘what we know’ changes. And particularly during this, it changes on a daily or weekly basis. Information that the CDC was using to make this choice last week was information they didn’t have a month ago, about the Delta variant, the infectivity of the Delta variant, how much illness it causes, and most importantly, that if you can catch it, and do catch it with the vaccine, you’re still protected. But it looks like you can infect others.

Maxwell: A lot of people in our audience might come to you, or one of your colleagues as a pediatrician and say, ‘my kids going to class this year, maybe they’re too young for the vaccine, or maybe they’ve had it. They’re 16 years old. They’re going to go into class. And now they have to wear a mask.’ What would you tell them about what that does to actually… Why do you wear a mask in the hospital? Why should a student wear a mask in a classroom?

Dr. Carlson: I wear a mask to protect myself, protect the people, my co workers, protect my family, and protect all of us, so that we decrease the spread of the virus. So in the schools, it’s important, particularly since 11 and under can’t have a mask, it’s important that all wear masks because while small children don’t get as sick and teenagers don’t get as sick as often as adults, they still do get sick. In St. Louis, in Arkansas, in Springfield, Missouri, the hospitals are filling up. In fact, we have seen an increase. We’ve had, we just got the data. For the last two weeks in July, we had 12 positives in children that have sought care at St. John’s Children’s Hospital.

Maxwell: I know already before Governor Pritzker’s press conference today, there’s going to be some politicians who say what… They’re gonna take what you just said about younger kids haven’t largely gotten as sick. But they might gloss over what you said a minute ago, that science isn’t stagnant, that we’re learning new information about how this delta variant — I saw an article just today saying it is appears to be infecting younger people, and they’re getting more severe illness. What do we know at this early stage in learning about the delta variant and the risks it might pose to that younger student population?

Dr. Carlson: We know the Delta variant is several-fold more infectious than the previous variants on the order of chickenpox, which is a very infectious virus. So it is spreading very quickly among kids in congregant groups like the initial variants did not. So that we know that in unmasked situations it’s spreading quickly among the kids and adolescents. It is still not as spread among small children as older children, we really are looking at these as all school aged children.

Maxwell: Help me understand that. What is it about a small child versus an older child? Is it just like how much they’re breathing and lung capacity?

Dr. Carlson: It’s very simple. Think about a small child’s cough and think about what that might spit out and think about an adolescent’s cough, what that might spit out. That’s 10 years seems to be about the age. Ten and above as an adult, under 10 spreads it a little bit less, but they can still spread it.

Maxwell: So viral load, basically.

Dr. Carlson: Yes, it’s viral load in your body, but the viral load that you spit out when you cough or breathe, breathe in normal breathing.

Maxwell: Alright, and I hate to have to ask you these questions. But believe it or not, we get inundated with a flood of people who still say masks are somehow harmful to you, masks can hurt you. I think even a Congresswoman from Illinois said that a mask, a paper mask is a petri dish of infection and disease. What do you say to people who say stuff like that?

Dr. Carlson: That’s just not true. I think for a medical mask like I’m wearing now, I exchange it every day or a few times a day when I’m clinical service. If you’re wearing a cloth mask, wash them frequently, but there is no evidence that masks are causing increased infections by wearing them continually in indoor environments.

U.S. Rep. Mary Miller (R-Illinois 15th Congressional District) tweeted her concerns that paper masks were a “Petri dish” for germs, dirt and disease. Medical professionals who wear the disposable masks in hospitals say she’s wrong.

Maxwell: Then there’s the compliance and just the factor of happiness, I guess, of interaction, right? Kids learn in social or emotional ways in classrooms, especially. Some parents just say, ‘You know what? Looking at the bigger picture, my kid’s young enough, I don’t think they’re gonna get sick, maybe my kids vaccinated, I don’t think they’re gonna get sick. And I think their emotional well being is worth something too. Why should they have to mask up their face to go into school?’

Dr. Carlson: We’re not finding that. You know, where are we finding downsides of wearing masks. If it… We’re not saying force a small child, a two year old, to put on a mask. Some kids with developmental disabilities, a little bit older. We’re not saying force those kids. But if your child cooperates and wears a mask, it is good for them and good for those others they can’t wear a mask. So it is an individual choice for small children. Don’t, it’s not, it shouldn’t be torture, but most children are able to accommodate and accept the mask willingly.

Maxwell: So you’ve probably met your fair share of non-compliant patients. And if I’m being honest, I might have been one of them for some portion of my life. Sometimes, what is that psychology in a patient or in the larger populace that just digs in its heels and says, ‘You’re telling me to do something and I don’t want to do it?’ How do you overcome that?

Dr. Carlson: Well, we understand. What we’re learning about this epidemic is that we’re applying the science to the rules. We are sort of pivoting a little bit. We’re continuing to apply the science, but we’re looking at the science of human psychology. And it is an enigma to me sometimes understanding why people are so against taking a slight precaution of wearing a mask in public or more importantly, not getting a vaccine that’s going to help themselves and their loved ones. I don’t quite understand it. But we’re trying to be respectful of that. So if you’re choosing not to get a vaccine, take care of yourself and others by wearing a mask.

Maxwell: Anything else that you think I’ve missed here?

Dr. Carlson: No, I think we’re strong proponent. I was very happy to learn about the press conference at 1:30 to come out. This is I think a mandated mask rule. My daughter just graduated from Glenwood High School, she’s going to go to University of Illinois, in Champaign, and we were very happy the University of Illinois is one of the universities to decide to have mandated a mask. I think the only way to keep this from spreading in schools — and some of those kids will get sick. We’re seeing that in high prevalence rates — But most importantly, while it’s still low level of kids getting sick, some do, but is them giving it to other people who may get sick.

Maxwell: Two questions for you. I didn’t mean to cut you off.

Dr. Carlson: Yeah, that’s fine.

Maxwell: I do have two things. Are you right now able to administer the vaccine in your clinic?

Dr. Carlson: We do. We administer the vaccine to our patients. And we do offer to the family members that come in with

Maxwell: A full array of all three?

Dr. Carlson: Right now, it depends on what we have. I believe we have Moderna available today, sometimes Pfizer, but we can in the community. You can choose. You have to look around, but you can go to websites and figure out, ‘I want Johnson Johnson, I want Moderna, I want Pfizer.’ You can do that. But we do have Moderna and Pfizer in our clinics.

Maxwell: And how are those conversations going? Are there parents coming to you expressing, ‘Look Doc, I don’t know about this thing.’ What are they saying?

Dr. Carlson: They’re asking questions, and we offer it. We say, ‘how about a vaccine today?’ It’s surprising to us that even though it’s late in the vaccine season from when it was first available, we’re still getting parents every day saying yes. And we’re getting children 12 to 17 in our clinics that are saying yes

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