Top Former Rhode Island Health Official Unaware of Key Studies on Masking, Child Transmission

By Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber
Reporter
Zachary Stieber covers U.S. and world news. He is based in Maryland.
July 28, 2022 Updated: July 28, 2022

The doctor who headed the Rhode Island Department of Health and recommended mask mandates be imposed during the pandemic was unaware of recent studies that indicate masking is not effective and that children are not major drivers of COVID-19 transmission.

Dr. James McDonald, who stepped down as interim health director on June 25 but remains employed by the agency, was asked during a recent deposition what the department did after a judge in 2021 found evidence that the statewide school mask mandate was causing “irreparable harm” to students.

“We did what we said we would do: we looked for scientific literature that supported this finding,” McDonald said.

“We have an open mind. We looked at all medical journals. I was open to anything I could find,” McDonald said, adding that he was “constantly” reviewing new articles in journals.

But when McDonald was questioned about whether he was aware of recent research on masking, he said he was not.

That included a study that found no relationship between school masking and COVID-19 cases, a study that concluded cloth masks were “very poor” at filtering droplets, and a study that found children struggled to recognize people wearing masks.

“These are studies you’re talking about that are, seem to be in really poorly known journals. I guess I’m not familiar with these poorly known journals,” McDonald said.

“Well, can you give me one study that you’ve looked at that studied the efficacy of masks in schools since November of last year?” Gregory Piccirilli, representing a group of parents in the case, asked.

McDonald said he found “great credibility” in a science brief from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has not been updated since Dec. 6, 2021.

“I’ve looked for other articles. I haven’t seen credible articles in other reputable journals,” he said, naming the New England Journal of Medicine and the American Journal of Public Health.

Piccirilli later brought up the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, with which McDonald said he was familiar. McDonald was asked if had reviewed an April study that concluded “there is no convincing evidence to date, 2 years into the pandemic, that children are key drivers of the pandemic.” McDonald said he had not.

“I don’t agree with that assessment,” McDonald said.

Reaction

The doctor’s comments during the deposition, which was part of a lawsuit filed against the state over its school mask mandate, drew criticism.

McDonald “has a complete lack of intellectual curiosity,” Maddalena Cirignotta, a teacher and a plaintiff in the case, told The Epoch Times.

“I have three children enrolled in a public school system in Rhode Island and I teach, so I’m watching the harm unfold, and I have been for two years. The first thing they should have done was look into that, and yet even after a Superior Court ruling, they’re still not,” she added.

“That’s just unacceptable when it comes to evidence-based decisions,” Dr. Andrew Bostom, the plaintiffs’ expert witness, told The Epoch Times. “That’s not what he was supposedly trained to do as a public health professional.”

Asked if other Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) officials had reviewed the studies in question, spokesman Joseph Wendelken declined to answer directly.

“We have a team of clinicians and public health professionals that regularly reviews the latest research and data on COVID-19, which includes research and data on COVID-19 and masking,” he told The Epoch Times in an email.

‘Must’

The statewide school mask mandate was lifted on March 4, a decision made by the department and Gov. Dan McKee, a Democrat.

Defendants tried to get the case dismissed because they noted the mandate was no longer in effect, and said it was unlikely it would be brought back.

In a May 20 memorandum, though, McDonald told Rhode Island parents that students who test positive for COVID-19 “must stay home and isolate for at least 5 days.”

If the students wore a mask, they could return to school on day 6, but if they did not, “they must isolate at home for the full 10 days following the positive test,” the memo, discovered by plaintiffs, stated.

Under oath, McDonald said that that the memo was outlining recommendations from the CDC and was not a requirement, despite repeated use of the word “must.”

“It’s clearly recommendations. There’s nothing enforceable about this. It’s simply a memo. It’s not a rule. It’s not a regulation. It’s not a law. It’s not an executive order,” he said.

“It is RIDOH’s recommendation that a student who tests positive for COVID-19 either isolate for five days and wear a mask when in public for the next five days, or isolate for 10 days,” Wendelken, the health department spokesman, said.

McDonald also said that a mandate could be reimposed in the future, including if a more transmissible variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 emerges.

“It’s like a looming dark threat, having a dark cloud hanging over me,” Cirignotta, the teacher, said. “I feel like, will I have to worry come November, that they’re going to just drop that mandate on our children again, on me and our kids? Of course, they’re going to, they’re clearly going to attempt to do so again.”

Zachary Stieber
Zachary Stieber covers U.S. and world news. He is based in Maryland.