COCHISE COUNTY — Three Cochise County residents passionately advocated for the removal of schoolwide mask mandates at a Zoom question/answer session Tuesday evening with Cochise County education and health officials.

Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels said the meeting was catalyzed when he was questioned about the Sierra Vista Unified School District mask mandate.

“I was contacted by a couple of concerned citizens wishing to discuss possible charges against the Sierra Vista Unified School District for alleged child abuse based on scientific research they had discovered stating that masks cause both physical and mental harm to the children,” said Dannels in an email.

“My team and I explained the standard of proof required for child abuse and the proper procedure needed to file these charges, but shared my understanding that the SVUSD is currently following the guidelines of CDC. I also explained that the Sheriff’s Office is not the experts of public health, but serve within the criminal justice system via public safety.”

Dannels said he and Cochise County Superintendent of Schools Jacqui Clay and Cochise County Health & Social Services Director Dr. Alicia Thompson collaborated on a public Zoom meeting to discuss the safety and efficacy of masks in mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

Clay informed all participating parties that the purpose was to have an informative discussion and not to debate.

Three county residents who brought their concerns about SVUSD’s mask mandate, Daniel LaChance, Karen Christian and Dan Gavin, were instructed to submit four questions ahead of time to Clay. Discussion moderator and pastor Randy Youngblood was assigned to read the questions to Thompson and Cochise County Medical Director Dr. Erik McLaughlin.

Gavin, LaChance and Christian previously expressed their disagreement with mask mandate at the Sept. 7 SVUSD board meeting.

Citizens and health officials were allotted three minutes as a group to respond.

One of the questions was why is COVID-19 significant enough to warrant a mask mandate.

Christian asked why COVID-19 was so significant in comparison to the flu, arguing that data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention shows a lower mortality rate for children who die of COVID-19 versus influenza.

“To hear that six children are in the hospital seems huge, but that doesn’t compare very well when you look at the amount of hospitalizations from previous years — in just looking at influenza,” said Christian.

“Who wants to have their child hospitalized?” said Thompson. “And currently, I’m getting calls from hospitals because they’re having a very difficult time transferring out patients with critical needs. It’s getting bad …

“All the hospitals are getting ready to switch from regular, standard of care to emergency operations because there are so many people in the hospital with COVID.”

McLaughlin said, “We are seeing a dramatic uptick in pediatric hospitalizations ... We’re seeing 23% of these patients that are testing positive are being hospitalized and admitted into intensive care units. Two percent are requiring mechanical interventions for ventilation supports and unfortunately 2% are expiring and dying — which is a great concern to me ...

“Across the board, this has a 1.8% chance of killing you if you acquire it (COVID-19) in North America.”

Another concern was if children spread COVID-19.

“Last year we had — all around the country — parochial schools meeting in person and not having any mask mandates,” said Gavin. “And from the research I’ve seen, there was no spread in those schools any more than any other schools. Locally, we’ve had one school that did that, and people did get COVID from their family members, but it was never spread in the school.”

“We do see increased communicability with school-aged children; we do see them acting as vectors,” said McLaughlin. “We do see that masking mandates and masking enforcement in communities demonstrating a decreased activity of the virus …

“The use of masks won’t decrease the activity of COVID in Cochise County, it will decrease the spread from student to student, student to family member and student to teacher. We are seeing an increase in children hospitalizations and in children’s mortality, sadly.”

Thompson provided data on the total number of students in Cochise County who have tested positive and the total amount in the hospital with COVID.

“As of last Friday (Sept. 10), we had had 253 students test positive in our schools in Cochise County,” said Thompson. “And of them, six children had been hospitalized — and it is COVID-19.

“So the data tells us that masking works, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that masking is done in schools, and CDC — the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention — they also recommend that children and teachers wear masks in schools.”

LaChance asked why daily temperature taking isn’t employed instead of a mask mandate and why more randomized critical trials on masking aren’t available.

“I think that some of the additional cases could be mischaracterized, because there is a pretty steady increase in the respiratory syncytial virus that is very similar in nature to COVID, and could be incorrectly reported as COVID,” LaChance said. “We have looked upon evidence, upon evidence, upon evidence from medical doctors and scientists from folks who have done randomized clinical trials — the gold standard for how to test things — then it clearly becomes a question of ‘what’s the truth?’ ...

“The folks who are dying are the ones with comorbidities. Normal folks get over this. And they get over it through their natural immune systems.”

McLaughlin agreed on the lack of quality information from RCT’s, but cited issues regarding the ethics of conducting them. He also said that all persons, regardless if they have comorbidities or not, can die from COVID-19.

“It’s a concerning illness that is killing people regardless of comorbidities,” said McLaughlin. “This isn’t a disease that only affects obese or lung patients. This is a disease that can have the potential to kill all of us. And sadly, we don’t know why yet ...

“It frustrates the heck out of me man, and I literally stay awake at night, ‘cause I don’t know why these people are dying ...

“I love the word RCT, that is the light shining down indicating that it’s a good study. But we don’t have them because we have ethics and problems that we can’t do these types of studies on individuals — exposing them to illness and then not masking them or not treating them — so we’re doing a lot of biostatistical comparisons and how we are going to extrapolate from smaller studies.”

After the meeting, Clay said she was contacted by Gavin, LaChance and Christian requesting another, longer discussion on the topic lasting until 9 p.m. instead of only one hour.

Clay said she directed them to contact the Cochise County Board of Supervisors to schedule another meeting.

Cochise County Public Information Officer Camila Rochin said that as of Sept. 16, the three citizens did not contact the supervisors about scheduling another meeting.

The Herald/Review reached out to Gavin, LaChance and Christian to follow up about their thoughts. LaChance was not immediately available for comment.

“It was very gracious for Jacqui Clay to set this up and the doctors and Pastor Randy to offer up their time,” said Gavin in an email statement. “It is extremely disappointing that the SVUSD school board was not interested in having a similar discussion or is open to hear what the public has to say. In the future, the school board should connect with the parents and citizens prior to enforcing any policy that affects the children as much as the mask policy.”

Christian said that while she’s not certain of the next step, she’s determined to continue to advocate for the removal of school mask mandates.

“Even if the mask mandates are lifted later this month, I have fears about what else the school board has in store,” said Christian in an email. “In the meantime, I will continue to engage with other parents, board members, and teachers as I am able. I would like to think that citizens still have the power to affect change in their community.”