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Austin School District Defies Texas Governor's Ban On Mask Mandates

NOEL KING, HOST:

Texans are in a tug of war over who can mandate what. COVID cases are rising there. Hospitalizations are, too. But Governor Greg Abbott says local governments cannot institute mask mandates.

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GREG ABBOTT: Kids will not be forced by government or by schools to wear masks in school.

KING: Judges overruled him in Dallas County and in Bexar County after they sued him. Local officials in those counties can require masks for now. And in the meantime, schools are reopening. Districts in Dallas and Austin are ordering students and staff to wear masks, despite what the governor says.

Stephanie Elizalde is the superintendent of the Austin Independent School District. Here she is on CNN.

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STEPHANIE ELIZALDE: What if a child dies on my watch? How do I go say to you, I'm really sorry; we did everything we could; the governor's executive order kept me from - like, what does that do to a parent?

KING: With us now is Dr. Desmar Walkes. She is the medical director and health authority for the city of Austin. Good morning, Dr. Walkes.

DESMAR WALKES: Good morning.

KING: I want to go directly to what the superintendent of schools said there. She said, what if a child dies on my watch? What are you seeing in Austin? How bad are things right now?

WALKES: We are seeing an exponential surge in the number of cases that we have in our city. And we're seeing an increase in the number of pediatric cases that we have in our city.

KING: Let me break that down a little bit. You are a doctor. You're using the word exponential. So I assume you're using that literally. You're saying that more children are being hospitalized. Is that right?

WALKES: Yes, ma'am.

KING: How old are the kids? Are we talking about teenagers, young children? What are you seeing specifically?

WALKES: We're seeing children that are less than 1 to children that are teenagers. We're seeing more of a problem, however, in our 12-to-18-year-old range.

KING: When did that start?

WALKES: It started in early July when we noted that we're having a prevalence of the delta variant of COVID-19 in our community.

KING: So you would attribute this rise in pediatric cases, in cases among children and teenagers to the delta variant?

WALKES: Yes, ma'am.

KING: So children in Austin go back to school next week, August 17. What do you think about the school district saying, if you want to be in school, whether you're a teacher, a student, a staffer, you have to wear a mask? What do you think about the district making this a mandate?

WALKES: I applaud and support their decision and stand with them in that decision.

KING: Do you think that Governor Abbott is putting people's lives in danger when he says, I am banning mask mandates; I am forbidding local authorities from putting these in place?

WALKES: I think that we in the community understand that it's important for us to wear masks to protect ourselves from spread in the short term. And we all understand that science has shown that that works and prevents the loss of lives.

KING: I'm encouraged to hear you say all of us because obviously this is a really big debate in the United States right now. All of us outside of Austin don't understand that masks save lives. Are you saying everybody in the city is masking up despite the governor saying we don't have a mandate here?

WALKES: No. We're not saying that everybody is masking up. But we're saying that the leadership in the city understands that, from political leaders, medical professionals, business leaders. And we are encouraging people to support masking and getting people vaccinated. So that's what I mean by all of us.

KING: As kids head back to school, are you talking to parents at all?

WALKES: Yes, we are. We're asking them to put a mask on their children when they leave for school in the morning. We're asking them to get those who are eligible vaccinated, those over the age of 12 and older. And we're asking them to avoid crowds of people or being in crowds where they don't know the people or don't live in their household. So we're trying everything that we can to get people to protect themselves from becoming ill.

KING: Do you hear from a significant number of parents who are concerned about the vaccine?

WALKES: Yes. We - we're hearing that they're concerned that their younger children cannot be vaccinated.

KING: So the concern is more - we want the vaccine, but we can't get it. It's not - my 15-year-old is eligible, but I'm worried about what's in the vaccine, so I'm not going to get this kid vaccinated.

WALKES: I do hear some of that. However, right now because of the surge that we're experiencing, there's an overwhelming majority of folks that are saying, I really wish my younger children could be protected by being vaccinated.

KING: Well, that sounds like good news in Austin. Dr. Desmar Walkes is Austin's medical director and health authority. Thank you so much for being with us this morning. We appreciate it.

WALKES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.