I swore when I sat down I wasn’t going to type a word about Covid-19. I was going to write about trees. (Love them; have never seen a thing as lovely as a tree, etc.) Maybe about those cute little “park-lettes.” (Make sidewalk dining and sidewalk walking compatible.) Or, maybe Afghanistan. (Heartsick. But these days I write about Key West, not foreign affairs.)
What came out of my fingers was this: “Mary, Joseph and the Wee Donkey, folks, we gotta slap some masks on. We are going to kill our kids.”
Let me walk that back a bit. I don’t want to spend the column shrieking in capital letters. OK, deep breath with a measured, grown-up tone. Given the rampage of the delta variant, Covid-19 cases are soaring. Not just among the unvaccinated, though they remain the staggering majority. Not only in “red” places because, let’s be real, viruses don’t register to vote. Not among the reckless and willfully ignorant, but also among those who think they’re careful. Two things will muddle our ways through this mess: vaccinations and the mask-wash-distance protocols of last year.
What started my Covid-19 rant was an overnight headline from Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa: “Over 5,000 students quarantine or isolate because of Covid in Florida school district.” Read a bit more: “5,599 students and 316 staff members are in isolation or quarantine.”
I have nieces and a nephew in Tampa schools. That got me thinking and that means I google stuff. Are things really that bad in Tampa? Maybe more than 5,000 kids and 316 staffers isn’t a lot given the size of the district. There are about 200,000 students in the district and it’s the seventh largest in the country. Hillsborough County has a 56.5 percent vaccination rate, about middling; nothing to write home about either way. (For context, Monroe County rate is considerably better at 73.8 percent.)
The Tampa district started back to school with a “it’s your choice, the rest of us aren’t masking and parents can opt out their kids” policy, but on Aug. 18, the board voted for mandatory masks, requiring a doctor’s note to opt out. In short, they defied the governor’s order, as have Alachua, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Next up in the search: How fares the Gwinnett County, Georgia, school district? That’s where my 8-year-old grandson goes to third grade. Gwinnett schools this week reported 502 confirmed, contact or probable cases, which includes students and staff. The Gwinnett school district has 180,600 students, which makes it reasonably comparable to Tampa. The Gwinnett vaccination rate is 51.5 percent, lower by a tick than Hillsborough/Tampa and by a lotta ticks from Monroe.
Gwinnett started school with a mandatory mask policy. Everyone inside the school, on a bus or playground wears a mask.
It doesn’t take a statistician to crunch those numbers. Covid-19 in the Tampa school district is shockingly out of control. By like 10 times worse than Gwinnett. What’s the difference? Surely you’ve got the answer handy. Gwinnett wears masks. (Because I know you’re suspicious, in 2020, Gwinnett County voted 58 percent for Joe Biden and 40 percent for Donald Trump. Hillsborough County also went with Biden over Trump, 52.69 percent to 47.87.)
About right now, I am starting to pound the keys; time for another deep breath. Because I really, really want to shout: On what planet is it OK to play politics with our children? Oh, right, I remind myself, we’re OK with school shootings, too.
I don’t have numbers for our school district. Those will likely come next week. Hopefully, our percentages will look more like Gwinnett than Tampa since, even with the politically correct “opt out” provision, our school board did require masks. If the Monroe County district does the right thing, they’ll release all the numbers — and step up to join the other Florida counties in making masks mandatory with opt-out only at a doctor’s direction. Monroe schools have re-upped on the Covid-19 dashboard so you can track at least the confirmed cases. Hopefully, they’ll begin including more information this week. My friends, I’m not particularly optimistic.
One in four Monroe County residents is testing positive for Covid-19, which doesn’t include those who are testing with our home kits. We’re more vaccinated than most counties in Florida, though that’s not saying much. We have a boatload of locals and visitors for whom masks are a forgotten concept. We’re spreading the virus hither and yon to friends and family and sending some home with visitors who may have brought it here last year. And, if you test positive or, heaven forbid, are hospitalized, how in all that’s holy can you afford to lose time from work or pay the medical bills? Covid-19 treatment ain’t free, even with good insurance or Medicare.
Solution is simple. No mandate needed. Put on your darn mask. Slap ’em on your kids. If you own a business, any business, require ’em. Ditto vaccinations. I’m done with tiptoeing around some misbegotten idea of personal freedom. You’re gonna kill the kids.