PALMER — Mat-Su Regional Medical Center Emergency Department Director Dr. Tom Quimby spoke as an invited guest to the Mat-Su Borough School District School Board meeting during Superintendent Dr. Randy Trani’s report.
Quimby has also served as the COVID-19 taskforce chair at MSRMC and offered his expertise on the district mitigation efforts that have been effective and those that could use alteration, as well as the importance of vigilance of continuing to wear masks in schools. Dr. Trani detailed the case counts of schools during his administrative report and noted the dramatic increase in cases near the end of January. Trani said that the district would require masks for all students, even during athletic competitions and activities involving vigorous physical activity.
“Working with all of those people that I described earlier, what we came to the conclusion was that we needed to return to the masks during vigorous activities, knowing that this wasn’t going to be popular with many people but what we were experiencing and I’ll show you graphically was just a dramatic surge in cases that was costing not only activities, opportunities for kids but also learning days for kids across the district,” said Trani. “I want to make sure that I have this caveat here when I describe things that are happening, I don’t ever want to make it seem like it’s a group of students that has caused anything. These are adults making decisions and when we talk about athletics and activities and maskless, I don’t ever want this to be misconstrued as something that we’re blaming on kids. It certainly isn’t a kid problem, it’s adults making decisions and it’s a virus that just is a virus.”
Trani addressed concerns brought by members of the public about if wearing masks was medically harmful to students, noting that there were examples across the country of mandatory mask wearing without health repercussions. Quimby used the segway from Trani about the lack of evidence supporting claims that mask wearing is medically harmful and stated that he believed the day was coming when schools could return back to normal, but that it is not now.
“This is happening all over the world. There’s just piles of case studies showing unfortunately when you take masks off that people get infected and that’s just the reality. I know it’s an inconvenient truth but it’s the reality,” said Quimby. “When you have a big outbreak like you guys did, I think probably at that point trying to be potentially over cautious makes sense because we’ve seen it again and again where if you don’t jump on it quickly you get exponential growth and then you have a big problem on your hands.”
Quimby began his presentation by thanking employees of the school district who had worked to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Quimby presented the reasons he felt the time for removing masks was not now, stating that he felt at least six weeks time should be given between when the last teacher is vaccinated before masks are removed in schools.
“I really want to take this opportunity to give credit to the many people that have worked tirelessly in the school district to make in person school a reality for our children. The Mat-Su School District has been an example to our state and frankly our country as a model for how we can safely hold in person school and I don’t think I need to convince anybody here of the value of having in person school as much as possible. It is really impressive the data that you have and some of which has been presented tonight which has demonstrated we are not seeing spread within classrooms in the school and the key component of that as unfortunate or inconvenient as it may be is the use of masks and physical distancing,” said Quimby. “Nobody wants to go on wearing masks forever and there are many promising signs with the way this pandemic is going that the day is coming that we will be able to get rid of masks but I would suggest that the time is not now for a number of reasons.”
Quimby reiterated that the impetus for students wearing masks in school was not to protect the health of the students, as most young people do not suffer severe symptoms of COVID-19, but to protect the community as a whole.
“If our community starts having unmitigated spread, our hospitals fill up, we start running into limited resources, our community and our country we have not in generations in this country had to deal with rationing health care and some of the terrible decisions that come with that and our country will not stand for it which will result in shutdowns and we’ve seen that happen,” said Quimby.
Quimby took time to debunk theories not based in facts and answer questions from the members of the school board. Quimby said that mask wearing has not proven to be harmful to anyone. Furthermore, Quimby noted that early predictions wondered if higher levels of bacterial pneumonia would be present with increased mask wearing, which has not happened.
“You will find no credible research that demonstrates any harm to anybody from wearing masks,” said Quimby. “Our hospitals are only filling up with covid patients, we’re not seeing other types of infectious and communicable diseases and it is absolutely true that there is no association with really any medical condition that is being made worse by wearing masks. I want to make that very clear.”
Quimby also discussed the topic of herd immunity, which he said had not yet been reached but was getting nearer as more people become vaccinated. Asked by School Board Member Jeff Taylor about the number of children that had died because of COVID-19, Quimby said that no Alaskan children had died but the comorbidity of long term health effects has been an issue with children who have contracted the virus. Quimby was also asked by Taylor about if there had been an increase in suicides and behavioral health patients during the pandemic.
“At what point do we finally say the kids have suffered enough,” said Taylor. “As a community and the people that I talk to in my jurisdiction, it feels like we are there, 0 in the hospital, 0 deaths, it’s on the downward trend. The Governor has opened the airport, it just feels like we as a district start thinking it’s time.”
Quimby noted that state data had not shown an increase in suicides or behavioral health patients, and noted the robust behavioral health department at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center. “We do have data now to show that we have not had increased suicides to be totally clear about that and that was published recently,” said Quimby. “With these really effective vaccines as well as there being some degree of natural immunity in the community, I think that we are we really are getting to a point where things are getting better and I think it’s going to be more manageable and we’re right on the cusp of that so I think if we can hold out a little bit longer and I’m sorry, I don’t know exactly, I can’t give you a date. I can’t say this is the day we take the masks off and nobody can, but we are getting closer.”
Quimby was asked by Taylor if MSRMC had ever been operating at full capacity with COVID-19 patients, and later asked by school board member Ryan Ponder if opening a second Intensive Care Unit was due to social distancing or an actual influx of patients.
“We opened a second ICU in our hospital. We were on the brink of needing to cancel elective cases again. We were running short on supplies like high flow oxygen. I and many other people, I mean that’s why the Governor at the end of November asked for everyone to shut down is because we were on the brink of catastrophe,” said Quimby. “Everyone was very worried about what was going to happen unless we saw a decrease in cases and thankfully that did happen, so yes we were very close. We were actually in discussion about enacting crisis models where physicians would have to make on the spot decisions about who got resources and who didn’t. We were very strained in that November time period.”
Ponder asked about the change in athletic protocols, doing away with jump balls to start a basketball game and handshakes after wrestling matches. Quimby did note that the initial fear over fomite transmission was unfounded, but likely made people feel more comfortable. Quimby agreed that the mitigation protocols eliminating parts of sporting events were likely not effective in mitigating the spread. Dr. Trani followed up by noting that the national officiating governing body had mandated those procedures, and they were not subject to district approval. Following Quimby’s harrowing story of the spike in COVID-19 cases at MSRMC in November, he again thanked those who have worked to keep schools open.
“I want to thank anybody and everybody who’s been involved in mitigation in this district. I really sincerely mean that, when this district has been an example of what many people thought could not be done,” said Quimby. “I personally speak on behalf of the parents and the health care workers. We really, really appreciate the work. We know it’s been a lot of work and a lot of stress.”