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Des Moines public schools see a decline in COVID-19 cases after mask mandate goes into effect

Last week, 69 new COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Des Moines public schools.

Des Moines Public Schools is crediting the district's mask mandate for a steady decline in COVID-19 cases since mid-September.

The week of Sept. 13, the district peaked at an average of 41 cases per day, with 205 cases of COVID-19 confirmed that week. On Sept. 15, the district's mask mandate went into effect, after a judge paused the state's ban on school mask mandates.

Last week's numbers show there were only 69 new confirmed cases.

Meghan Schaeffer, an epidemiologist with Polk County, said COVID-19 cases in the state peaked in mid-September, but school rates, while they did go down initially, did not decline as quickly as the rest of the community.

"Then after the injunction was issued, we saw further deceleration after the mask mandate requirements were put back into some schools, and that seems pretty clear in the data," Schaeffer said.

But Schaeffer said, while there's good research to show the effectiveness of masking in schools, it’s not the only piece to help slow COVID-19 transmission.

"Adequate spacing [and] ventilation is a really big part of keeping cases down and reducing spread in schools,” she said. “And being able to test for new cases quickly is also really important because the goal of all of these measures is to keep kids in school."

Though, a decline in cases doesn’t mean communities are safe from COVID-19 or other viruses, especially over the colder months. Schaeffer said there are indications for communities to see a lot flu and RSV cases.

"What we’re seeing in some other countries and mainly the UK is that Delta [variant] has changed a little bit, and we might see that same strain come back into our communities at some point this winter," she said.

Schaeffer added that flu vaccinations can help protect schools and communities. She said parents should also consider the COVID-19 vaccination for younger children as it moves closer to approval and to talk with their pediatrician.

Catherine Wheeler was Iowa Public Radio's All Things Considered host and a reporter from 2021 to 2023.