Fact check: Public shares false statements on masks, COVID-19 at Lee school board meeting

Published: August 18, 2021 6:54 PM EDT
Updated: August 19, 2021 11:48 AM EDT

Parents and community members made their voices heard about what they think of requiring masks in Lee County schools.

Not everything shared during the heated public comments at Tuesday’s Lee County School Board meeting was accurate. In fact, a lot of it was misinformation about COVID-19, vaccines, and masks.

We asked experts to help us fact-check what was shared on the record at The School District of Lee County. Those experts worry popular beliefs outweigh critical facts.

Our goal is not to embarrass people who argued their beliefs during the school board meeting, only to fact-check the claims.

“Dental work will be needed because they aren’t drinking as much, and they need saliva in their mouth,” a public commenter shared with the school board.

We took comments like that to Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, a pediatrician and epidemiologist with UF, and Edwin Michaels, an epidemiologist and infectious disease expert at USF.

“You’re breathing carbon monoxide back into your body,” a public commenter said. “You’re telling me that’s healthy? You have your eyes watering up, your nose run, you get a headache. That is poisoning our children.”

“There’s no evidence of adverse effects of wearing masks,” Rasmussen said. “I do think people don’t like them. I think none of us like wearing masks. But we do it because we want to protect ourselves, and it’s really important. Right now, the delta variant is really highly transmissible, especially for people that aren’t vaccinated.”

“The better masks will prevent, you know, smaller size particles from passing through the mask, so that is well established,” Michaels said.

People commenting at the school board meeting debated how deadly COVID-19 is.

“Last flu season alone, more kids died just during flu season than have died since COVID emerged,” a public commenter said.

“That’s not true. More kids died of COVID than typically die in a year of flu. Now, last year, we had almost no deaths from flu, and that’s because kids were wearing masks,” Rasmussen said. “None of us want any child to die, and we know that, somewhere, 300 to 400 kids have died in the United States already of COVID.”

“Moderna and Pfizer, the vaccine in this country isn’t even approved by FDA,” a public commenter said. “There’s no peer-approved studies that masks work.”

That message lacks context. All three vaccines have gone through the necessary steps required by the FDA to ensure safety and efficacy before receiving the Emergency Use Authorizations, visible here. The COVID-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson were granted authorization for emergency use by the FDA after following the required steps for safety and efficacy.

“Releasing a vaccine within a year is unheard of and this only happened because they already had the technology to go in the pharmacy program, “Michaels explained. “They’ve been working on mRNA technology for 20 years, and they’ve been trying to develop vaccines, for cancers, for example. That’s where it all started. So they had the technology. Now what they needed was for the trials to take place and to speed up, and that’s what the emergency approval did.”

“All these people are saying that we shouldn’t believe those reports,” Michaels said. “Those are well established in epidemiological studies in order to prove that the vaccines work.”

“The same people who are saying they won’t take a vaccine because it’s not being approved fully, is under emergency approval. The same people are willing to take monoclonal therapy, which is also under emergency approval because their lives are now in danger,” Michaels said.

Parents were not the only ones to spread misinformation. A school board member also strayed from the facts when she spoke during the board meeting. School board member Melisa Giovanelli said this about masks and the vaccine Tuesday night.

“Do they work? We know that they don’t,” Giovanelli said. “We know that the vaccination is not even working. So what works? Staying home.”

We asked Giovanelli for clarification on her statement. She said, “My point was nothing is 100 percent. There’s a lot of things we can do to mitigate the virus. I believe there is COVID. I had it personally. I just think there is a lot of things we can be doing, and masking our children is up to the parents.”

“I believe in the Parents’ Bill of Rights. It was a long night,” Giovanelli added “Nothing is 100 percent is what I meant. Sending your kid to school sick is the worst thing. Masks are not 100%. N95 is the best and I haven’t seen a kid wear that yet. It certainly mitigates it but I wore masks and still got COVID, so I’m going off personal experience.”

“We do know that vaccines do work. Again, they’re not perfect. But we do know that they are highly effective in decreasing the risk of hospitalization and death,” Rasmussen said. “The downside is that we haven’t been very accurate at predicting which kids can get severely ill. So you might say, ‘Well, my kids chance is low of getting severely ill,’ but it’s not zero. And none of us want our kid be very sick, and have to be hospitalized or even dying.”

Watch the full school board meeting below or click here.