Dear Iredell-Statesville Schools Board of Education:

Thank you for the job you do for our local school system and our students. Thank you for prioritizing in-person education over the past school year. I recognize that decision-making is difficult any time, but especially during a novel viral outbreak. I appreciate what you do and the time you take to listen to individuals from all sides of the mask debate. I would like to point out a few things about viruses (and masks).

DISCLAIMER

Like you, I’m no epidemiologist. However, I am a biology professor. Part of my job is to help students learn how to conduct research on viruses. Although our lab work is specifically on viruses that infect bacteria, I teach concepts that extend to all types of viruses. I do think I’m above average at sifting through and synthesizing information from scientific papers. Most of my training is in the field of ecology which is perfect because, towards the end of this letter, I’m going to ask you to think of our local schools as one big ecosystem.

I understand there are angry and passionate people on both sides of the mask dilemma. Passion usually means that people care. Some are claiming freedom for their children while others are claiming safety and health for their kids. Some are worried about government, or school system, control while others are worried about kids getting sick or even healthy kids getting sent home because of quarantine rules. Individuals in our community on all sides seem to be invested. This investment allows for more opportunities to have productive conversations. I’d rather have a community full of invested people than apathetic people. I do recognize, though, that there is a strong possibility that frustration and anger on all sides have been fueled by misinformation.

MISINFORMATION

Even though this letter isn’t really about vaccines, we should start here. Vaccine and mask misinformation stem from the same place—a mistrust of people. The seeds of mistrust are sown by TV personalities, social media posts, local radio stations, and many other sources.

Understanding basic biological concepts and weighing the evidence are the keys to distinguishing some of these lies from the truth.

To understand how the different types of vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 work, we would need to go back and look at what the field of genetics refers to as the “Central Dogma.” In our cells, segments of our DNA, called genes, go through a process where they transcribe into messenger RNA (mRNA) , which is then used as instructions to synthesize a particular protein. You may recognize that term “mRNA.” Two of our most effective vaccines are full of these mRNA instructions for how to build a protein that will train our immune system. Here is a great primer on how the approved vaccines, especially the mRNA type, work. I know I just said that the focus of this letter was not about the vaccines but thinking about genes and proteins excite me.

It’s true that masks can be uncomfortable and annoying. They make it hard to carry on conversations with others. Just because we’d rather not wear them does not make them ineffective at decreasing the transmission of this virus.

Here’s what I would say to you or anyone in the community in response to this misinformation:

1. Unvaccinated individuals as well as those who choose not to wear a mask are not to blame for this pandemic (see Israel) and should not get labeled as unloving or uncaring.

2. Vaccinated individuals as well as those who choose to wear a mask are not “sheep.” Those who have been vaccinated are not responsible for shedding any poison to others, and those who wear masks are not in danger of dying from carbon dioxide.

3. Masks have nothing to do with government control.

4. Individuals who have recovered from COVID-19, more than likely, have antibodies. This natural immunity helps all of us in the long run.

5. Vaccines are vaccines. They are not a type of genetic therapy. Vaccinated individuals have not had their DNA manipulated. If you understand the “Central Dogma,” then you understand that when mRNA is injected, it cannot make or mutate DNA.

6. It’s reckless to make the claim that “vaccines don’t work.” Vaccines work great. Just because breakthrough infections happen does not mean they don’t work. They are intended to decrease hospitalizations and deaths.

7. It’s not accurate to claim that masks don’t work simply because you know someone who wore a mask and still got sick. I recognize that you can find studies that support whatever opinion you happen to have at any given moment, but solid research exists that shows the effectiveness of masks. For example, this study showed that masks reduced the number of new infections in one community by 45 percent. However, this review states that masks are most effective at reducing the spread of a virus when compliance is high.

8. Masks alone will not end this pandemic in Iredell County. In fact, this school modeling tool that was created by two researchers at the University of Washington shows that in addition to masks, you would need high vaccination uptake + distancing + regular rapid testing + improved ventilation to keep school cases low. However, with the Delta variant, masks in schools have to be the starting point.

Even though we may not be able to keep school cases low, masks will help us keep in-school transmission low. That is what Iredell-Statesville Schools prided itself in last year—the fact that the category labeled “cases related to secondary spread within schools” was nearly always less than 1% per week.

Let’s now zoom out and look at the SARS-CoV-2 virus (especially the Delta variant) through an ecological lens. This is where I want you to imagine Iredell-Statesville Schools as one big ecosystem. The argument that “if masks work for your kid, then you do you and let me take care of my kid” is a flawed argument. It assumes individuals, or students in our ecosystem scenario, go to school in isolation. One of the rules of ecology is that nothing in nature exists in isolation. Students in each classroom in each school certainly do not exist in isolation.

Remember, masks are not 100% effective, but they are one tool to decrease transmission. Your actions have an impact on the entire community, especially when virus particles are involved.

VIRAL BEHAVIOR

Viruses are small protein shells with tiny pieces of genetic information (DNA or RNA). Everything about how a virus infects, and thus reproduces, relies on this genetic information.

Because viruses reproduce so fast, the genetic material has the potential to change rapidly. We
call these changes in the genetic code mutations.

So, we have established that the SARS-CoV-2 virus mutates. The more infections you have in an ecosystem, the better chance that “fit” variants get transmitted. Here’s what you, as a board, need to remember when people ask the question “Why bother with masks?”

Increased infections = high rate of viral evolution = increased chance of fit variants circulating in our ecosystem

The great news is that the converse is also true.

Decreased infections = low rate of viral evolution = decreased chance of fit variants circulating in our ecosystem

How do we decrease infections in our school ecosystem? We encourage vaccinations and require masks to be worn indoors. You have the opportunity to directly help with decreasing infections.

VIRAL PANDEMICS and ECOLOGICAL POPULATIONS

To understand how this Delta variant is different (and dangerous) we need to look one last time from an ecological perspective. At the outset of this pandemic, one critical disease variable that experts tried to track was R0 (pronounced “r-naught”), which is the basic reproduction rate for a disease. Basically, R0 is the potential number of secondary cases one case could produce at the beginning of an outbreak in a completely susceptible (healthy, but not immune) population.

Here’s a student activity that uses modeling and shows how diseases with different values can spread through a human population. I found it interesting to compare seasonal influenza, measles, and SARS-CoV-2 using this simulator. You should try it out when you have time.

Seasonal influenza has an R0 value between 1-2. On the other end of the spectrum, the R0 value of measles lies between 12-18. Last year’s SARS-CoV-2 had an estimated R0 of 3. The R0 of the Delta variant seems to be between 6-9, closer to measles on the scale. That’s scary, and it certainly explains why it is rapidly ripping through communities, including our own. Feel free to read this article for more information on how to take into account individuals that have immunity to determine how contagious Delta may actually be in our community.

I understand that some have a hard time trusting policy makers and/or government officials, but I ask each of you to learn from our neighboring school systems who have had to pivot away from a mask-optional policy and make masks mandatory. I ask you to trust our local hospitals and healthcare workers when they say that they are strained and out of space. You still have the chance to be proactive rather than reactive or worse, inactive.

As board members, you are charged with acting in the best interest of our students and their education. I know we all agree that having students in the classroom is more beneficial than having them quarantined at home. The best way to protect our local school ecosystem is to have all students, staff, and faculty in masks while they are indoors. It won’t be this way forever, but right now this is our way forward.

Your partner in education,

Parks Collins

Editor’s Note: Parks Collins has three children who are enrolled in Iredell-Statesville Schools.

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