As the Florida mask fight rages, more children hospitalized

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Pediatricians from several Florida hospitals all had the same message Tuesday: the COVID-19 delta variant is infecting more children than previous strains, putting more in the hospital and until it abates, schools should require masks in the classroom — an assertion Gov. Ron DeSantis disputes as lacking evidence.

While pediatric hospitalizations and deaths remain a small fraction of Florida’s overall numbers, which have skyrocketed since June, they are exponentially higher than they were during previous waves of the disease.

About 60 children are being admitted per day to Florida hospitals for COVID-19, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up from about five per day throughout much of the pandemic — even previous surges.

Overall, about 230 children are currently hospitalized in the state with COVID-19, compared to 20 in late June when the disease appeared to be waning, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. More than 15,000 patients of all ages are currently hospitalized in Florida, up from about 1,800 in June.

At the University of Florida’s Shands Children’s Hospital in Gainesville, for example, there were 14 COVID-19 patients Tuesday — it typically had one virus patient or none during previous peaks. Dr. Shelley Collins, a UF professor of pediatric medicine, said the current number has left the staff emotionally drained as many of these children are being placed on ventilators.

“As the numbers grow, the frustration grows and it hurts our hearts every day,” Collins said.

The pediatric increase has come as schools have reopened and DeSantis has battled with districts over whether masks should be required in classrooms. Twelve of the state’s 67 districts, representing about half of the state’s 2.8 million public school students, have now defied DeSantis’ executive order. It bars schools from requiring masks over parent objections — an order that a judge threw out on Friday, saying the governor did not have the authority.

DeSantis has said he will appeal, saying there is no scientific evidence or medical consensus that universal school masking prevents the spread of COVID-19 among children. He believes the decision on whether a child wears a mask in class should be left to families and not school boards.

“Parents and guardians – not politicians and bureaucrats – are the most ‘local’ authorities for their own children,” his spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw, said in an email Tuesday. “Every family deserves the right to choose whether their own children wear masks to school or not. Federal bureaucrats should not have the power to take that right away from families, or to intervene between parents and their own children.

But Associated Press interviewed six hospital-affiliated pediatricians independently this week from across the state — and all said students should be masked, as does the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Masks definitely decrease the spread among children,” said Dr. Chad Sanborn, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Palm Beach Children’s Hospital. “They should be mandatory at schools.”

All the doctors interviewed have more hospitalized children than at any point in the pandemic, with most saying the majority of their patients are normally healthy with no underlying conditions. They also said the majority of their patients are unvaccinated, even among those 12 and older who are eligible.

Dr. Emad Salman, chief physician executive at Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, said his facility had 17 COVID-19 patients on Tuesday, almost triple its previous high before this summer’s surge, with three in intensive care.

He and the other doctors believe the surge is caused by the delta variant being easier to catch than the original strain while children and their parents are taking fewer precautions than they did a year ago. Many families have not had their eligible children vaccinated while discarding social distancing and masks not just in schools, but in everyday life.

“The incidence of COVID in Florida is very high. When the incidence goes down, we should readdress whether the masks can come off, but for today, the safe thing to do is put a mask on,” Salman said.

Dr. Christina Canody, a pediatrician at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital in Tampa, said parents who are concerned that their children won’t be able to breathe properly or concentrate if they are masked throughout the school day should consider surgeons, who sometimes wear masks throughout procedures that last 12 hours or more.

That concern, she said, “is not a reality,” she said.

Dr. Mobeen Rathore, chief of infectious disease and immunology at Wolfson Children’s Hospital of Jacksonville, said he is worried that the upcoming Labor Day weekend will result in another spike among children.

“After every long weekend, there’s been a surge of infections,” he said.


Associated Press writer Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami contributed to this report.