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Open Letter: Masks Keep Kids Safe

By James R. Downing, M.D., President and CEO of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

James Downing, MD, wearing a mask

James R. Downing, M.D.

No child should die in the dawn of life. That belief started St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where I have worked for the past 35 years. It is a promise for children that has galvanized the world, regardless of background or political affiliation—and it is a dream that we all can share. 

Why are we now debating whether children should be protected amid a raging pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 in the U.S. alone? 

As a physician, scientist and president and CEO of St. Jude, I am compelled to speak up for evidence-based medicine, science and the future of children. The data is clear: COVID-19 is raging across communities, and we have the means to stop it now. 

The State of Tennessee’s Executive Order 84 allows parents to opt their children out of local mask mandates. Forgoing mask usage in schools increases the risk that children will catch or spread COVID-19. I implore parents to make the right choice and protect their children by insisting they wear masks in the classroom.

The emergence of the delta variant, a more contagious strain of the virus that causes COVID-19, accounts for more than 90% of cases in the U.S. This has led to the highest number of daily cases in Tennessee since the pandemic’s start. Hospitals are overrun by those infected. More disturbing is the notable increase in the number of infections, hospitalizations and deaths among children and young adults. 

I ask parents who are opposed to masking mandates to consider what is at stake. In Memphis today, children are on ventilators in intensive care units because of COVID-19. Shouldn’t we reduce the risk of this happening to other kids? Wearing a mask in school is the first step. 

At St. Jude, our successes in the treatment of childhood cancer, sickle cell disease and other life-threatening disorders were made by following the science. We heeded the data and designed treatments around the research findings. As a result, the lives of countless children have been saved.

Our scientists have taken that same rigorous, evidence-based approach to keep St. Jude patients, their families and a workforce of more than 5,100 safe. Evidence shows that masking diminishes the threat of COVID-19 by significantly reducing its spread. 

Please look at the scientific data. 

  • Masks do not and have not harmed an individual. 

  • They are safe to wear all day. 

  • They decrease the chance of getting COVID-19 and the risk of spreading the virus to others.

There is no disputing these facts. They were true for the original strain and remain true against the delta variant. Wearing a mask will ultimately save lives. 

Protesting mask mandates puts an agenda before children’s health. This stance is not rational. Stop the arguments and the protests. Stand up as a community and do what is right to protect children. Let Tennessee be the model of a good citizen. 

Debate is healthy, but not when the debate is about wearing a mask that can decrease the chance of children contracting COVID-19. 

St. Jude will continue to advocate this position and share its perspective—grounded in science—with Gov. Bill Lee and members of the General Assembly about this issue. But more importantly, we will continue to speak directly to parents about the value of putting children in safe environments to learn and grow.

If we continue to let unmasked children go to school, the outcome is predictable. Children and teachers, and then their family members and more, will get sick. Schools will be forced to close. Parents will need to stay home. The economy will suffer. Most heartbreaking, we will see an increase in the number of deaths from COVID-19. No one wants this. Mask up, and if you are eligible, get vaccinated. 

This week, the FDA gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for those 16 years and older. It is a safe and effective means to stop the spread of this virus, and every eligible resident in Tennessee should get vaccinated. Only by working together can we stop the spread of COVID-19 and put this pandemic behind us. 

Too many kids still die from cancer and other diseases we’ve yet to fully understand despite decades of incredible progress. But, as a caring community, we have the power to keep them from dying simply because they went to school.