Conflict arising from Gov. Tom Wolf’s statewide school mask mandate erupted into an exchange of letters between the governor and the legislature’s GOP leadership. It began with a request for information but ended, it appears, with an attempt at political retribution.
Thursday morning, Republican leaders of the Pennsylvania General Assembly including Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre), and Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) joined Senate Health and Human Services Chairman Michele Brooks (R-Crawford) and House Health Committee Chairman Kathy Rapp (R-Warren) in a letter to both the governor and Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam, demanding more COVID-19 data from the Wolf administration.
“Since Tuesday, August 31, we have heard from thousands of constituents, parents, and families who not only have concerns with the mask mandate in schools, early learning and child care settings, but have questions regarding the indefinite timeframe of the mandate in relation to the current 2021-2022 school year,” they wrote. “It remains important for all of us to be fully aware of the current situation and future outlook; and all Pennsylvanians, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, deserve to know how their respective group is performing.”
The Republicans requested more specific daily COVID-19 updates on cases among children and unvaccinated adults for comparison with the vaccinated or partially vaccinated. They also wanted projected COVID case estimates for the months to come.
Pennsylvania Republicans have said the governor’s new mask mandate for children is not welcome and is an issue that is best handled on a local level.
Jason Thompson, a spokesman for Corman told Delaware Valley Journal, “Sen. Corman believes school boards should have the right to decide how to keep students safe, and the best way to do that is to ensure they have the best data available…without the need for one-size-fits-all mandates that do not make sense for every community in Pennsylvania.”
The governor responded in his own letter, later Thursday evening, writing “We are happy to provide more information regarding your specific requests.”
He then explained that case numbers for children were already available on Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 Data Dashboard, providing a link, and that information on data on COVID-19 cases of Pennsylvanians who had already been vaccinated would be available early next week. He deferred projections of the pandemic to the CDC.
Then Wolf turned the tables, requesting the General Assembly police itself regarding members’ COVID-19 data.
“I am asking you to create a frequently updated dashboard to track efforts by each member of the General Assembly to help encourage vaccinations. This should include information such as how many vaccination clinics have been publicized or facilitated by each member of the legislature, what vaccination outreach has taken place through various media forums, and efforts members plan to take to educate parents and students about the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine as we anticipate its approval for younger ages in the coming months.”
Republicans dismissed this response as a political stunt, not executive leadership.
“The Wolf administration keeps telling people we need to follow the data,” said House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff’s spokesman Jason Gottesman. “But they are not providing the people of Pennsylvania or their elected voices in the General Assembly with a full picture of the situation and the Pennsylvania-specific data on which they are relying to make their decisions. Without that, it’s difficult to know whether their decisions are based on fact or political science.”
At the heart of the debate is the question of how children are faring during the delta variant surge. Supporters of more aggressive actions like mask mandates and social distancing say the new version of COVID is hitting kids hard. Opponents say the risk to children is still relatively low and doesn’t call for drastic action.
So, what do the numbers show?
Of the 28,498 Pennsylvania deaths due to COVID-19, fewer than 20 have been among people under the age of 20. To put that in perspective, 380 people over the age of 100 have been killed by COVID in the Keystone State, despite being a far smaller fraction of the population.
Nationwide, about 365 children per day are being hospitalized with COVID-19, or just five hospitalizations per one million children 17 or younger. While that rate is significantly higher than in July, it’s still extremely low.
And state records indicate 306,909 Pennsylvania children between the ages 15 to 19 have been fully vaccinated, while 57, 559 were partially vaccinated. And for the ages of those between 10 and 14-years-old 141,410 have been fully vaccinated while 35, 955 have been partially vaccinated.
And a new study from the United Kingdom released Thursday reports that the impact of COVID-19 on children is so relatively low that “even unvaccinated kids are at lower risk of death than fully vaccinated adults of any age.”