We are failing our kids on masks, vaccinations

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Our children are a reflection of those who raise and care for them. How many of us have referred to our children as our “mini-me?” How often have we heard or seen our children, or children of our friends and families, parrot what we say, repeat what we do, or behave as they see us behaving? 

Right now, some Michiganders are behaving badly.

October was Children’s Health Month. As CEO of a nonprofit public health institute, my mission is to work to promote health and advance well-being for all. Public health is not political. Public health has historically served the people of this country as a neutral, data-driven resource to protect the safety and well-being of everyone.

That includes our children.

In September, the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, of which I am a member, issued a series of statements urging school districts to adopt Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recommendations, including universal mask requirements.

The task force members come from public office, higher education, foundations, the state’s major health systems and grassroots organizations. Many of them are on the front lines of fighting the pandemic. These volunteers bring with them years of experience, knowledge and a very clear understanding of how the pandemic has altered all our lives.

We are nurses, doctors, scientists, researchers, elected officials, community organizers, parents, spouses and more. The task force members have dedicated our lives to the health field and protecting those most vulnerable, including children. Together, we urged school districts to adopt Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recommendations to protect our children from COVID-19.

Some are choosing not to trust the public health professionals who have spent our lives serving others. They are choosing not to trust an overwhelming body of research from scientists and doctors. They are choosing not to trust the same people they turn to for help when facing a heart attack or cancer, yet they will not trust us when we ask them to get vaccinated and wear a mask; when asked to help us protect our children.

It would seem a very vocal minority of Michiganders are misbehaving, and their actions are contributing to preventable illness and suffering among many, including our children.

I have watched with disappointment the contentious debates surrounding this matter. As the daughter of a career veteran who served during the Vietnam War and the sister of a veteran West Point alumnus who served during Desert Storm, I take great offense at the weaponization of American principles designed to unite us. The Pledge of Allegiance, the Declaration of Independence, or chants of “USA, USA” serve no purpose when shouted in attempts to shame, blame or distance us.

One of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, once said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” In this seminal speech, he pleaded with us to not let disagreement paralyze and destroy us. Similarly, the words of Jesus of Nazareth challenge us that, “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” Now is not the time for division to prevail; there is too much at stake.

Our children, often blissfully unaware of politics, will follow the lead of parents, teachers and other adults in the community. What kind of example are we setting for them? Children are adaptable. They are flexible and resilient. And perhaps most importantly, they trust us to keep them safe.

We cannot abuse their trust.

Quite simply, masks work. Our understanding of universal and standard precautions requires the wearing of masks during surgeries and interactions that could unnecessarily expose people to germs and pathogens, and to prevent the spread of diseases. Masks are a critical part of a reliable line of defense against COVID-19. Masks also help prevent the transmission of cold and flu germs. And yet, even as we enter the second and third months of school, many of our children head into classrooms daily without the most effective protection against COVID that is available to them – a mask.

Among the contentious debates I have observed are school boards fighting with principals, parents attempting to arrest public health officers sworn to serve, and city councils at odds with the public health departments they fund to keep residents safe. They argue over public health tools we have used for longer than most of us have been alive: masks and vaccines.

It is naïve to think we will simply come together and set aside our differences in this divisive landscape. But we must. If our children can understand the importance of caring for their friends and neighbors, I must believe we can do the same as adults. I must believe we can set the example for them of how to solve a monumental problem with empathy, science and community.

Come, let us reason together. We are failing our children. They believe in us. We must rise to their expectations and take the necessary steps — masking and vaccination — to keep them safe or risk losing their trust, and their lives.

Renée Branch Canady, Ph.D., MPA, serves as chief executive officer of MPHI, a Michigan-based and nationally engaged nonprofit public health institute dedicated to advancing population health through public health innovation and collaboration. She has over 30 years of public health experience focused on eliminating disparities and fighting for equity at the local, state and national levels.

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