The CDC Mask Guidelines for This One Situation May Surprise You

Considering the dangers that come with this activity, the CDC's guidelines may come as a surprise.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been a leading voice amid the coronavirus pandemic, guiding Americans on everything from hand washing to mask wearing to how to stay virus-free in challenging situations. And with back-to-school season upon us, the agency has been releasing updated information on how to keep students and teachers safe in the classroom. Their latest guidance, released on August 11, is specifically on face masks in schools, a combination of two of the most controversial topics right now. In it, the CDC lists examples of "some, but not all, situations schools might encounter" in terms of masks. They note in which situations cloth face coverings are "recommended" versus the ones in which they should merely "be considered." While it likely doesn't come as a shock that recess and lunchtime fall in the latter category, one situation is also included in that group that's a bit more surprising: when students are in band, choir, or music class. Of course, it would not be possible to play a flute or saxophone while wearing a mask, but it is possible to sing while wearing one. And, as you've likely heard, singing is one of the most high-risk behaviors for spreading the COVID-19 contagion.

In fact, research published in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report in May found evidence that singing can result in a super-spreader event. At the time, the CDC reported that after a choir rehearsed for two-and-a-half hours in Skagit County, Washington, one symptomatic member spread the virus to 87 percent of the choir. As a result, two members died.

"The act of singing itself might have contributed to SARS-CoV-2 transmission," the study concluded. "This outbreak of COVID-19 with a high secondary attack rate indicates that SARS-CoV-2 might be highly transmissible in certain settings, including group singing events."

Sister and brothers having fun playing music together
iStock

When MLive asked a panel of doctors to assess the COVID risk level of 36 activities—from going to the gym to getting on an airplane—they determined that going to church is an extremely high-risk activity. They gave it a rating of an 8 out of 10, but said that singing would actually make going to church just as risky as going to a bar. "If they add singing, then it's on a par with bars," Mimi Emig, MD, a retired infectious disease specialist with Spectrum Health, told MLive. "People are going to hate that, but it's the truth."

Singing poses such a risk that on July 1, the California Department of Public Health temporarily put a ban on singing and chanting in all houses of worship.

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In schools, of course, singing can pose just as much of a threat, especially if a music classroom doesn't allow students to maintain six feet of distance. The CDC's mask guidance for music classes says, "When students are not singing or playing an instrument that requires the use of their mouth, they should wear a cloth face covering in music class (unless class is outdoors and distance can be maintained)." The experts also note that music teachers should try to practice social distancing and that they should "consider moving class outdoors where air circulation is better than indoors." Of course, that's not possible for many schools, if not most. And for more risky behaviors, check out This Is How High Your COVID Risk Is Based on Your Everyday Behavior.

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