Sen. Johnson questions effectiveness of masks in schools, cast doubts kids can get severe COVID-19 symptoms

NOW: Sen. Johnson questions effectiveness of masks in schools, cast doubts kids can get severe COVID-19 symptoms

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- As some school districts are temporarily shifting to virtual learning due to positive COVID-19 cases, U.S Senator Ron Johnson is doubting mask mandates in school are effective, saying kids can’t get severe symptoms once infected. 

Despite national and state officials calling masks one of the most effective tools to prevent the spread of the virus, Senator Ron Johnson is suspicious whether or not they work. 

“I think growing science is showing that masks have not been particularly effective,” Johnson said. “The risk of COVID is stratified primarily based on age and unfortunately, many policymakers aren't taking that truth and science into account.”

While most children with COVID-19 have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, some can get severely ill and “might require hospitalization, intensive care, or a ventilator to help them breathe,” according to the CDC website. 

The Republican said he supports wearing masks and wears them, but his comments prompted backlash from many in the medical community, including the state’s chief medical officer who specializes in communicable diseases. 

“It’s very wrong to trivialize the potential for severe illness in children because it does happen,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer, DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases. “Their risk is not zero and their consequences can be serious.”

While some schools have removed mask requirements after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the statewide order, some districts' officials say masks are a big reason why they’ve been able to stay open all year. 

“We believe they have kept the spread of COVID down in our schools,” said Joe Koch, deputy superintendent at the Waukesha School District. “Our district has taken the position that masks are an essential part of our mitigation plan.”

Waukesha has been open for in-person instruction since last year and only had to shift to a hybrid model and virtual a couple of times in 2020, according to Koch. Since February, they’ve remained open five days a week with students and teachers in the classroom with low infection rates. 

“We’ve felt (masks) have been an essential part of our program this year and would like to continue it into the foreseeable future,” Koch said. 

Johnson has made a string of headlines since the pandemic began, which experts have called misleading and inaccurate. 

Last month, he said during a telephone town hall event that if masks worked, people “probably wouldn’t have had as many infections, as many deaths as we did.” He also claimed since vaccine efficacy is high, not everyone needs to get vaccinated. 

The Republican from Oshkosh also told CBS 58 earlier in the year he doesn’t have plans to get vaccinated because he “had COVID,” despite CDC guidance that recommends those who’ve recovered from the virus to still get vaccinated.

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