As of Monday, face masks will only be required by a few Erie County school districts and individual schools.
The decisions to go mask optional have pleased some students and parents, who have battled to end mask mandates almost since the day students returned to in-person instruction.
But other parents and students are concerned that ending mask mandates will place children at risk of COVID-19, especially if they have immune systems weakened by illness or medicines.
“We certainly encourage those children to continue wearing masks, though the peer pressure not to wear them will be difficult,” said Charlotte Berringer, R.N., director of community health services for the Erie County Department of Health.
Berringer and other health officials offered some advice for families who want to protect their children against COVID-19 after their school has ended its mask mandate.
The first step is to discuss face masks with their children, Berringer said. An N95 or KN95 mask protects better than a paper surgical mask, which protects better than a cloth mask.
“But it depends on what the child will tolerate,” Berringer said. “It’s difficult to wear an N95 or KN95 mask all day. If the child takes it off during the day, then use a mask that the child will tolerate.”
It’s not just immunocompromised children who should still wear masks, said Howard Nadworny, M.D., a Saint Vincent Hospital infectious diseases specialist and county Health Department adviser.
“Schools are wonderful incubators and amplifiers for viruses like COVID, and we have students who live with their grandparents, who are more vulnerable to complications,” Nadworny said.
Besides continuing to wear masks, health officials recommend students receive their COVID-19 vaccinations, try to avoid crowds of students who aren’t wearing masks, and encourage teachers to open classroom windows.
More than 22% of all Erie County COVID cases reported in January
As the numbers of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations plummet in Erie County, it’s even more apparent how widespread the omicron variant was in January.
The highly transmissible COVID-19 variant sparked new cases to skyrocket to 12,501 in January — double the previous monthly high and 22.4% of all county cases since the pandemic started in March 2020.
In other words, nearly one county resident in every four who has ever had a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in January.
As a comparison, 1,596 cases were reported in the county from Feb. 1 through Feb. 20, or 2.8% of all cases since the pandemic started.
A total of 60 county residents died in January from COVID-19 complications, though that number may increase as COVID-19 deaths are now being reported up to two months after they occurred, according to the county Health Department.
Thirteen COVID-19 deaths have occurred so far in February. The county’s mortality rate increased slightly this week to 1.4% of all cases since the pandemic started, the county Health Department reported.
The county’s number of breakthrough COVID-19 cases continues to increase. The county Health Department reported 13,622 cases, or 8.8% of all fully vaccinated county residents.
Flu mounts a comeback in Erie County
While COVID-19 cases have declined, flu is staging a comeback. The county Health Department reported 64 cases last week and 61 the previous week.
Weekly cases had dropped to below 20 in late January. Berringer said the rise could be due to the ending of mask mandates at many area schools.
“About 78% of all cases are people 18 and younger, while just 6% are over 65,” Berringer said. “As we continue to unmask at schools, maybe we won’t see more COVID cases but we’re seeing more flu.”
No county deaths have been attributed to flu so far this flu season, and nine people have been hospitalized, Berringer said.