"Kraken" is the Car Crash We're All Speeding Toward
The Time for Putting on a Seat Belt is Before it Happens, not After
Have you seen this visualization of the spread of XBB.1.5? It’s compelling, and scary:
I’ll have more to say about XBB.1.5 below, but as parents of a middle schooler and a high school senior, my wife and I grew increasingly concerned about our kids returning to school after the holiday break. So, feeling compelled to do something, I reached out to the Superintendent and Student Health Coordinator of our local district. What follows is some of what I said to them along with their response and my subsequent reply. To start, I said:
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It is utterly surreal to me that I find myself in a position of holding what has come to be, if you believe our major media and government leaders, a "fringe" position. My position is simple, and is backed up by science. The data shows that:
COVID is airborne.
It affects every system in your body.
It weakens the immune system leaving you susceptible to other illnesses.
The acute phase is not the only, or perhaps even the primary, concern for most people, as the long-term effects are still being studied but have already proven forever life-changing for many people.
Kids are not spared; kids catch, spread, and die from COVID and/or its effects.
Lack of mask mandates in schools have been shown to cause community spread, while the presence of mandated masking in schools has been shown to reduce it.
Local hospitals, especially pediatric ones, are already strained to the point of the possibility of good, timely care being reduced.
The XBB.1.5 variant, out of New York (not China) is one of the worst we've seen and has been named "Kraken" because of its transmissibility, severity, and immune evasiveness; this variant is fast becoming the dominant strain in the U.S. and will lead to many cases and unfortunately eventually hospitalization and death.
It's an indictment of our societal leaders that we've been left essentially to fend for ourselves, to make decisions that seem right individually based on what individuals can learn through their own efforts. There are reasons for this, but getting into them is not why I'm writing to you. Fortunately, there are folks out there doing their best to help keep us all informed with the tools we need to make the best decisions possible. So I'm going to refer you to the work of one writer that has been compiling a lot of the data and providing it in digestible threads:
Here are but a few of her helpful roundups of the latest data:
For a reading list about clean air focused on kids and written for parents and educators, go here.
For a roundup focused on masking and kids, go here.
For a roundup on the impact all this is having on children’s health and lives, go here.
Finally, for a roundup about XBB.1.5/Kraken, go here.
What I'm arguing for is what I would call commonsense COVID mitigation in our schools. This would include:
Improved air quality through the use of HEPA air purifiers or Corsi-Rosenthal boxes in every classroom.
Universal, mandated masking in schools. We already make sure our kids are masked with N-95's/KN-95's. While this one-way masking is a step in the right direction, two-way masking is far, far better, especially with the high viral loads we're likely to see coming out the winter break. I have been informed that individual principals cannot make this decision on their own, but that the Superintendent under the advisement of the Student Health Coordinator, can. So Mr. _______ and Ms. _______, this is on you. Will you do right by our children?
Good surveillance of community spread and having a ready plan to switch to distance learning for all students when spread is high.
I'm sure I could think of more but just these three steps would be a wonderful start to literally saving lives.
It would have been very, very wise if given all of the above including the rise of XBB.1.5, the district had made a plan to start out of break with distance learning. Maybe we'll get a snow day or two. However, because my family has three high-risk individuals and the best protection against all of COVID's ill effects is not to get it, we will be keeping our kids home from school this week.
I went on to talk a bit more personally about the situations of our two kids, but the thrust of my argument is clear above.
At the end of that first week after break in which we kept our kids home, this was the response I got from the district:
We appreciate your message and your concern for the health and safety of both your own family and the greater community and your ongoing partnership with the staff at the building level...
We also want to provide a safe and healthy learning environment in our schools. As a district, we continue to monitor both trends within our school buildings and in the community and remain in contact with our local public health officials regarding appropriate mitigation measures for our schools.
We continue to respect individual masking decisions, to follow public health guidance for any positive cases that are reported and asking individuals to stay home when they are ill, have free Covid tests available for both students and staff, have MERV 13 filters and have our air system providing 100% outdoor air. We are grateful that we are not at this time, however, seeing conditions that would warrant universal masking in our schools.
We understand that your students were home this week while you considered continued enrollment at (the schools), that your role is to make the best decision for your family, and that this can be very difficult. Although we would love to see your students continue in (the district), your students’ deans can also help share information if you would like to learn more about other options available as well.
I truly am grateful for this reply. Dialogue is important, and hard to maintain. However, I am not satisfied. While this reply is professional, cordial, and even- on the surface of things- reasonable, once you prick the veneer of “doing everything we can,” it becomes clear what this is- gaslighting and negligence that endangers lives. I replied:
Thank you so much for this response. Our kids have been back in school the past two days, but we continue to be greatly concerned not just about our own kids and family, but about the community we all call home.
In year 4 of the pandemic the evidence is abundant that well-fitting, high-quality masks not only work, but particularly mask mandates in schools help to reduce community transmission and undoubtedly save lives. A recent example is a November 2022 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, which showed that for the district studied...
...the lifting of masking requirements was associated with an additional 44.9 cases per 1000 students and staff (95% confidence interval, 32.6 to 57.1), which corresponded to an estimated 11,901 cases and to 29.4% of the cases in all districts during that time.
I don't know what conditions you're not "seeing," but it seems to me that your logic is backwards. The time to put on a seatbelt is not after you've been in a crash, it's before. Masking is a simple preventative measure that can protect against COVID, the flu, RSV, or any other airborne contagion that might come our way. The "urgency of normal" must be resisted. XBB.1.5 or "Kraken," the most transmissible variant yet, is already in Minnesota (news story here); so it's only a matter of time before it becomes the dominant strain here and cases take off. (Go here for a visualization of XBB.1.5's projected spread across the country.) COVID, once again, is *not* mild, it does *not* spare kids, and even if one's initial acute infection resolves without incident it weakens the immune system and can result in long-term negative health outcomes.
Some districts across the country seem to get it and are bringing back masks (news story here). Will (the district) protect our kids, families, and community and proactively act to save lives, or will you wait until more kids and families are sick...or worse?
It would be very useful in parental decision-making if the district was transparent about case numbers or even just the number of daily and weekly students and staff absent. Being able to monitor these trends could help parents make informed decisions about whether school buildings are safe or not, especially if you continue to refuse to use the most basic and effective tool at our disposal- masks. Having some real-time CO2 monitoring in buildings and classrooms would be nice too.
Because I care about my family and our community (and you!) I'm willing to continue "making noise" and calling you to account for your care of our children. It's just too important.
I don’t know that I expect any further response, nor do I expect my actions to effect much change. What I won’t do, though, is sit idly by as this disaster unfolds. I’m reminded again of this legend about A.J. Muste’s Vietnam War protest:
Once a reporter asked him, "Do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night in front of the White House with a candle?" A.J. Muste replied softly: "Oh I don't do this to change the country. I do this so the country won't change me.”
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