Knowledge inertia underpins B.C. NDP government's decision to scrap mask mandate in schools
A large U.S. study showed that retaining mandatory mask policies cuts transmission of COVID-19
A not-so-funny thing happened on March 10.
On that day, B.C.'s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, announced an end to mask mandates in K-12 public schools after spring break.
That very same day, a massive U.S. study revealed that schools with mandatory masking experienced 72 percent fewer cases of in-school transmission of the COVID-19 virus during the Delta surge.
The National Institutes of Health funded the study, which looked at more than 1.1 million students and 157,000 staff across nine states.
"The researchers found that for every 100 community-acquired cases, school districts with mandatory masking had approximately 7.3 cases of in-school infections, while optionally masked districts had 26.4 cases of in-school infections," the NIH stated in a news release.
"In other words, school districts with optional masking had approximately 3.6 times the rate of in-school COVID-19 cases when compared to schools with mandatory masking."
In light of this information, it's not surprising that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends indoor masking in schools where there are high community levels of COVID-19.
Yet in B.C., the NDP government is abandoning mandatory masking in schools after spring break. This decision came just as the highly contagious BA.2—the so-called "stealth" Omicron subvariant—is spreading in many countries.
Science takes a back seat
Here in B.C., we really don't know if there are high community levels of COVID-19 because there's not sufficient testing capacity to make this determination.
But that hasn't diminished the confidence of Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix that it's okay to scrap mask mandates in K-12 schools as well as nearly everywhere else in the province.
“Thanks to high levels of vaccination, decreasing transmission enabled by British Columbians’ resolve and the public health orders we’ve had in place, we are now able to lift more restrictions and continue moving forward as a province,” Dix said on March 10.
On a few occasions, I've been asked why the B.C. government has, at times, seemed to be so hostile to mandatory mask policies, given that COVID-19 is predominantly transmitted through the air.
I've also been asked why Henry and Dix almost never talk about the differential quality of masks in their frequent public briefings.
They won't do this even though a study at the University of Waterloo demonstrated that K95 and N95 respirators offer far better protection from aerosols than surgical or cloth masks.
The best explanation that I've heard is "knowledge inertia", which occurs when there is rapidly emerging information in a particular field.
The more senior and vested a person is in the accepted wisdom, the less likely they are to pivot in response to new information.
This concept was outlined in a 2002 paper by Tamkang University professor Shu-hsien Liao. Two Chinese researchers, Ping Wang and Xuewei Yang, elaborated on this in a 2013 paper in the Proceedings of the 2013 International Academic Workshop on Social Science.
"Knowledge, as power and a resource, has been much more important for both organizations and individuals," Wang and Yang wrote. "Therefore, one of the necessary issues for enterprises is to manage knowledge properly and efficiently.
"However, individuals may have their natural inertia when facing problems in the utilization of knowledge, which is termed 'knowledge inertia'."
I believe that this could explain Henry's reluctance to accept the value of wearing masks early in the pandemic and her eagerness to dump mask mandates just as we're seeing an explosion of BA.2 subvariant.
What other explanation is there for scrapping mandatory masks on the public transit system, given what we know about the potentially devastating consequences of COVID-19 on seniors, infants, and those with compromised immunity?
Knowledge inertia could also explain the insistence of the chief medical officer of Vancouver Coast Health, Dr. Patricia Daly, that there's still a great debate over whether COVID-19 is airborne. In the eyes of many, including the World Health Organization, the evidence is irrefutable.
Henry and Daly have been steadfast in resisting calls for HEPA filters and carbon-dioxide monitors in classrooms.
As a result, they've been scorned on social media by international researchers who insist that the science is clear: COVID-19 is airborne; N95 and K95 respirators reduce transmission; and HEPA filters also reduce transmission.
More disability and death?
For the most part—with the notable exceptions of Green Leader Sonia Furstenau and Green MLA Adam Olsen—politicians at the provincial, municipal, and school board level have not challenged the underlying pretexts of B.C.'s COVID-19 policies. With rare exceptions, there has been barely a peep from people working for large media outlets.
But some of these journalists and politicians must wonder what's going on.
Especially when a professor at Oxford University led a study citing B.C. as a case study about why health officials delayed accepting the reality of airborne transmission.
Especially when a highly respected aerosol expert in the U.S. put Vancouver Coastal Health in his COVID-19 Hall of Shame.
Both of these researchers have also publicly stated that the Ministry of Health's comments about masks have been "misguided".
Now, we have our provincial health officer eliminating mask mandates in schools on the very same day that a large U.S. study documents how they reduce transmission of COVID-19.
Surely, that imposes a duty of care on B.C.'s school trustees.
Are they going to allow the province to dictate that students don't need to be masked in the face of this evidence?
On Friday (March 11), I asked the Ministry of Health if boards of education could impose their own mask mandates in their role as an employer. I still have not received a response.
UBC has decided to retain its mask mandate, so there doesn't seem to be any reason why a school board couldn't do the same.
That leads to this question: will any trustees bring forward a motion to retain a mask mandate in their districts to prevent the spread of COVID-19?
Or are they going to do nothing, even though greater transmission of this disease dooms some students or members of their family to death and permanent disability?
It's been more than two days since I asked this question of every Vancouver school trustee.
I still haven't received an answer.
When President Volodymyr Zelensky was asked if he wanted to leave Ukraine, he famously replied: "I don't need a ride. I need more ammunition."
Here was a politician who inspired the world with his courage against a far more powerful and deadly adversary.
Rather than duck and cover, Zelensky chose to risk death on behalf of the people he represents.
The worst thing that will happen to a B.C. school trustee if they stand up to Dix and Henry is that the premier's office will instruct Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside to fire them a few months before an election.
Keep in mind that school trustees are paid just over $32,000 a year in Vancouver. So the net cost would be about $16,000 if they were fired at the end of this month.
Then, they can put their names on the ballot again, when they would likely receive tremendous support from well-educated parents who've read the scientific literature about COVID-19.
I actually don't believe that the province would fire any trustee who supports retaining a mask mandate. That's because it would only bring more international ridicule on B.C.'s COVID-19 response, especially in light of the new N.I.H.-funded study.
There must be at least one school trustee in this province with the gumption to bring forward a motion for a mask mandate in public schools in their district.
In doing this, they would be daring Premier John Horgan—who has a mask mandate at his own news conferences—to fire them for standing up for students' health and the health of their families.
Who's going to be our Volodymyr Zelensky?