For the past 20 months, Americans have been told to “listen to the experts.” But when those experts finally appear on Capitol Hill, it appears that some members of Congress would rather listen to themselves.
During a hearing titled, “Putting Kids First: Addressing COVID-19’s Impact on Children,” Republicans and Democrats had an opportunity ask the president of American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) about the effects the pandemic has had on our youngest and most vulnerable populations, and whether the current approach we’re taking is right.
But instead of putting politics aside and putting “kids first,” it was business per usual for the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. For an illustration of how off-track the hearing went, Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-Wash., devoted most of her time to asking Dr. Arthur Evans, Jr., CEO of the American Psychological Association (APA), how lawmakers can play the role of parents to “rein in” the impacts of social media on kids. Sure, it’s an interesting and important topic, but it’s one that has little to do with COVID-19 and kids.
Rep. David McKinley, R-W.V., used his allotted five minutes to go off on a rant about vaccine mandates for adults and the lack of clarity regarding religious exemptions. After finishing his rambled thoughts that were also hardly relevant to the topic on-hand, he asked no questions of the witnesses, instead, yielding the balance of his time back to the committee.
Once again, kids weren’t put first. Before Congress, sat a handful of the nation’s leading experts who provide recommendations to school officials and the Biden administration about how to operate and form public policy surrounding COVID-19 and kids. But lawmakers couldn’t bother asking Dr. Lee Savio Beers, president of the AAP, why her organization supports 2-year-olds being forced to mask, or what science they use to support such an extreme position. No one even pressed Dr. Beers on the downsides of such policies.
Democrats largely focused their time on promoting the vaccine, a laudable yet largely unproductive goal, as it’s not yet available to young kids. They also spent time addressing the role of vaccine “misinformation,” without defining what that means. While Dr. Beers expressed frustration about vaccine “misinformation,” instead of shaming individuals for asking questions, she acknowledged that this is a “scary, uncertain time” for families, and encouraged them to come to their pediatricians to discuss their concerns.
Republicans made some use of Dr. Tracy Beth Høeg, an epidemiologist and public health expert at the University of California, Davis, by allowing her to compare the Scandinavian approach to COVID regulations in schools, which was to keep them open and not ask children under 12 to mask, to that of the U.S. “Europe has been better at acknowledging we don’t have solid data showing that masking children has had any impact on preventing disease,” she said. For that reason, many European countries have asked that the burden be placed on the science to prove masks are an effective mitigation strategy in schools, versus the U.S., which has taken the opposite approach.
Dr. Høeg also raised the issue of natural immunity in kids, which is sure to become a more prominent concern among parents as the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 showed promising results.
Dr. Høeg said that in Europe, data in adults suggests natural immunity may provide better protection than vaccines, and that it should be more robustly studied and considered here. Beyond that, lawmakers hardly touched on vaccine mandates for kids.
Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., was perhaps the only lawmaker to press Dr. Beers on a public controversy. In light of emails revealing that one of the nation’s largest teachers union lobbied the CDC on, and even suggested language for, the federal agency’s school-reopening guidance released in February, he asked whether the CDC consulted the AAP on its recommendations urging in-person learning.
“I think I can only assume that they took our expertise into account because we talked so regularly,” Dr. Beers said.
Rep. Carter replied, “I would assume they didn’t because they didn’t follow it.”
Dr. Beers offered no follow up.
Encouragingly, there was one area where everyone could all agree: Remote learning has had serious implications for children’s physical and mental health well-being, and for that reason, it’s critical to keep kids in-school. Instead of mandating that students who are exposed to COVID-19 stay home in quarantine for 10 to 14 days, which continues to exaggerate learning loss and leave parents without childcare, members of the panel supported “Test to Stay” policies, which offer daily rapid COVID tests to students exposed.
Unfortunately, that policy solution, along with other COVID questions parents have surrounding kids, received little attention from lawmakers who spent much of their time monologuing and grand-standing instead of taking advantage of the expert witnesses they had on-hand. In all, it was business per usual on Capitol Hill, but especially frustrating when promoted under the guise of “putting kids first.”