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Health experts: School mask rule spreads misinformation

| October 12, 2021 7:00 AM

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — State-employed public health experts said the Montana health department used "misleading and false" claims in support of an emergency rule that urged schools to consider parental input when adopting rules for wearing masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Montana State News Bureau reported.

Eighteen epidemiologists wrote to Adam Meier, the director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services, saying the Aug. 31 emergency rule "contributes to the spread of misinformation and adds confusion to those who are trying to make informed decisions to keep their kids and communities safe."

The emergency rule also "threatens the credibility" of the state health department and will "negatively impact our ability to communicate with Montanans in the future," the epidemiologists wrote in a letter dated Sept. 17.

The rule said schools that mandate face coverings in the classroom "should ... be able to demonstrate they considered parental concerns in adopting the mandate," and that they should allow students to opt out of the mandate based on "physical, mental, emotional or psychosocial health concerns, as well as on the basis of religious belief, moral conviction or other fundamental right."

Lance Melton, the executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, said at the time that the rule didn't require anything, but said what "should" be done. Some school administrators said students were free to opt out of wearing masks in school, but that they were then opting in to virtual learning.

Along with the rule, Gov. Greg Gianforte's office released a 13-page report citing several studies, news stories and social media posts saying there is "no science behind mask mandates for children," and warned of negative effects for some children wearing face coverings.

Montana pediatricians and the Montana Nurses Association criticized the report and the epidemiologist' letter said the information released by the governor's office ignored "numerous peer-reviewed studies."

A portion of the rule states: "The department understands that randomized control trials have not clearly demonstrated mask efficacy against respiratory viruses, and observational studies are inconclusive on whether mask use predicts lower infection rates, especially with respect to children."

The epidemiologists said it would be unethical to conduct a randomized control trial on mask wearing among children during a pandemic.

Studies recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated wearing masks are an effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. One showed counties without school mask mandates experienced larger increases in childhood COVID-19 case rates after the start of school compared to counties that had school mask requirements.

Last month, Democratic state Rep. Ed Stafman of Bozeman, who chairs the interim legislative committee with oversight of the health department, questioned Meier about the emergency rule.

Meier said the health department, the Office of Public Instruction and the governor's office had received a substantial number of inquiries about school masking and the rule was meant to give guidance and not "to be a conclusory scientific study."

"There are studies out there that do show conflicting information as to the extent of the effectiveness" of masks, Meier said on Sept. 22.

The epidemiologists' letter said it was "demoralizing" to have the department issue a public health emergency rule "that is not founded in the science of public health."

The Montana State News Bureau obtained a copy of the Sept. 17 letter through a public records request. The Montana Free Press had earlier obtained a copy from a source.