Your Friendly Neighbor Epidemiologist has come to the masking debate armed with new data, and she’s ready to help health-conscious parents advocate at their schools, school boards and churches.
Emily Smith, assistant professor of epidemiology at Baylor University and a global authority on the spread of infectious disease, has found a new calling during the COVID-19 pandemic as a blogger. Through her website, Friendly Neighbor Epidemiologist, she seeks to span the gap between scientific facts and common people trying to comprehend those facts.
She’s also married to a Baptist pastor, is a mother and is passionate about helping other parents.
Her latest post is addressed specifically to parents who need help advocating for mandatory masking at schools and churches.
“School boards, administrators, church leaders, please heed this data for mandatory masking with Delta,” she wrote at the top of her post, which is filled with data she interprets as well as shows.
The Delta variant of COVID -19 “now accounts for over 98% of new infections in the U.S. due to the new variant being highly transmissible — about 60% more transmissible than the Alpha variant,” she explained.
One way to understand this is to consider what researchers call the reproduction rate, which is expressed as “R0” for short. This is an estimate of how many people can be infected by one person, and for the Delta variant, that number runs between 5 and 9, which is very bad news, Smith said.
She cited an article from the Journal of the American Medical Association to explain: “If a virus with an R0 of 2.5 spreads among a completely susceptible population, an estimated 9,536 infections would result after 10 cycles of transmission. However, for a virus with an R0 of 6, 10 cycles of transmission could result in an estimated 60,466,176 infections.”
This, she said, explains “why we are seeing explosions” of sick people in unvaccinated and low vaccinated areas — what the JAMA article calls “completely susceptible” populations.
Such data indicate what Smith calls a “double whammy” for school settings with children younger than 12, who are not yet eligible for vaccination and are not required to wear face masks at school.
“Masking works extremely well to protect our children and communities against Delta — up to 75% reduction in transmission,” she said. “Social distancing alone does not work. You really need high rates of masking to work. Hence, mandatory masking in schools will keep our schools open and children/families/communities healthy.”
“Social distancing alone does not work. You really need high rates of masking to work.”
Further, “masking against Delta helps keeps infection low, squashes outbreaks, and reduces death three- to four-fold.”
She also cited a study in the science journal Nature that illustrates the difference mask wearing makes in fighting the Delta variant: It found a 75% reduction in infection rates with mask wearing.
Her note: “Y’all, that’s a lot of children and families spared the risk of severe infection, long COVID, etc.”
The Nature study also demonstrated that virus outbreaks can be squashed more quickly with even 40% mask wearing but especially with 80% mask wearing.
“Think of why this is important in a school setting,” Smith said. “Rather than risking school closures due to outbreaks, staff being sick, and students being sick in large numbers (we are already seeing this scenario in Florida and Texas), masking can make a big difference in keeping our schools open by reducing the number of infected individuals.”
Further, social distancing without masking does not work against the Delta variant, she reported. The chart at the top of this story illustrates this.
“The big takeaway from this is that social distancing doesn’t make that much of a difference in daily new infections when compared to masking,” Smith said. “This highlights why masking in schools, churches, social settings is so important — social distancing is not enough against Delta.”