School Mask, Vaccine Mandates Take Center Stage at Senate Hearing

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Senators sparred over school mask mandates and whether the federal government can and should mandate COVID vaccines for eligible kids during a Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing on Thursday.

While new CDC data showed that schools without mask mandates were 3.5 times more likely to have a COVID-19 outbreak, some governors and state leaders have threatened to strip funding from schools that require masks, noted committee chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) in her opening statement.

And some state officials are undermining efforts to promote vaccination, she added.

“They’re not only ignoring — and in some cases denying — the fact that we are in a pandemic, they’re making denial a badge of honor,” she said, noting that there is “nothing honorable” about endangering kids, teachers, and families.

Given the real-world data, it’s clear masking and other mitigation measures work and should be put into practice “because this is not a game,” Murray continued. It isn’t a game for school administrators who have been threatened for “doing the right thing. It’s not a game to students who want to be able to go to school without contracting a deadly disease that could hurt them or a family member.”

In his own opening remarks, ranking member Richard Burr (R-N.C.) countered that it’s the Biden administration that politicized the mask issue by conducting a civil rights investigation into states that have banned mandating them.

“If you want to use the bully pulpit to … criticize and condemn those who have banned mask mandates, that’s the perk of your job. Developing preposterous legal theories and abusing the powers you have to try to bully your political opponents into submission is a step too far,” he said.

Burr continued on the theme of government overreach, asking both of the hearing’s witnesses whether they would support a vaccine mandate for children 12 years and older in K-12 schools.

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said he supports school districts, local jurisdictions, and governors that require masks or vaccination, but when pressed, he noted that “the federal government doesn’t have jurisdiction to tell schools what to do.”

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona also said that vaccine mandates “should be at the state and local level.”

But Cardona also noted the importance of promoting vaccination in places with high transmission, given that data have shown that the areas with the highest vaccination rates have “less interruptions in learning.”

Rand Paul, MD, (R-Ky.) raised the issue of natural immunity, as he has on multiple occasions, arguing that those who have had COVID-19 and recovered should not be required to be vaccinated. Paul tested positive for the virus in March 2020.

He pointed to an Israeli study that found that vaccinated patients were more likely to get COVID than those who had gotten the virus and recovered.

Paul asked Becerra if he was familiar with the study. Becerra said he was not. Paul then questioned his expertise, asking whether he had a medical degree (Becerra does not). He accused Becerra of “arrogance,” “authoritarianism,” and “lying” to the American public about “naturally acquired immunity.”

“You have no scientific background, no scientific degrees, and yet you aren’t really concerned about 100 million Americans who had the disease. You just want to tell us, ‘do as you’re told,'” he continued.

Becerra replied that HHS “follows the facts and the science … Our team has reviewed every study that’s out there on COVID, whether it’s from Israel, from the U.S., or wherever else. They have used the facts that have been provided through the rigorous research that’s been done to reach conclusions.”

He also argued the need for caution: “660,000 Americans, more, have died because of COVID, we’re trying to do everything we can to save as many [lives] as possible.”

The WHO has recommended that people who have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 get vaccinated, unless their doctor advises otherwise. The CDC’s website states that there isn’t enough research yet to know how long a person with a previous SARS-CoV-2 infection will be protected, adding that vaccination helps protect people even if they have already had the virus.

One issue that both sides of the aisle agreed on, however, was testing.

The chairwoman and several other members of the committee voiced concerns that some schools have had difficulty accessing COVID tests.

Cardona agreed that testing is key to keeping schools safe and keeping children in the classrooms.

Becerra noted that the CDC provided about $10 billion to school districts and states to do testing, and the government continues to provide technical assistance and guidance in best practices for using those resources.

He also explained that while there is “sufficient total testing capacity,” getting these tests to certain places has been problematic. He pointed out that demand has increased month-over-month “some 300% to 650%” and because the demand is not even in some pockets of the country, there appears to be shortages.

Additionally, President Biden announced earlier in September that he will leverage the Defense Production Act to obtain $2 billion in rapid point-of-care tests and over-the-counter at-home COVID tests, Becerra noted.

The federal government will continue to work with industry partners to expand production, he added.

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    Shannon Firth has been reporting on health policy as MedPage Today’s Washington correspondent since 2014. She is also a member of the site’s Enterprise & Investigative Reporting team. Follow

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