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Saint Alphonsus doctor explains the risks for schools opening, effectiveness of face masks and what herd immunity is

Dr. Steven Nemerson, the Saint Al's chief clinical officer, answers many common questions about schools opening up this fall as the coronavirus pandemic rages on.

BOISE, Idaho — As summer break nears an end and schools across Idaho prepare to open their doors, minimizing the spread of COVID-19 is top of mind as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread.

Saint Al's Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Steven Nemerson shared his insights in a Central District Health Board meeting on Tuesday about students going back to school this fall, including the health risks of returning to school, face masks vs. face shields and herd immunity.

For students returning to school, Dr. Nemerson said teenagers present the biggest risk of virus transmission to their peers and teachers, partly because of their size.

"They are bigger human beings, they project louder and further when they speak and when they cough or sneeze," Dr. Nemerson said.

The Boise School District will be requiring face coverings for students when school starts this Fall.

Another common question from viewers is if face masks are a better defense against the virus or face shields. Dr. Nemerson says the short answer is face masks are better than face shields.

"The risk of transmission from one person to another, if both are wearing masks, can be reduced by a factor as high as 85%," Dr. Nemerson said.

He added that face shields compliment masks and are an additional benefit. 

While face coverings are required in the Boise School District and in all of Ada County, there are some exemptions but Dr. Nemerson says those are rare.

"I will tell you that it is a very rare circumstance in which a patient cannot wear a face covering," Dr. Nemerson said. "Only a severe illness, and by severe, I mean so debilitating that it basically keeps a person at home, respiratory or cardiac disease. Those would be the principal exceptions for when someone would not be able to wear a mask."

Dr. Nemerson also addressed the concept of herd immunity, which he says cannot be achieved without a vaccination.

"Those that do acquire the virus, their immunity is going to ween in a matter if of months and they can acquire it again and that concept of herd immunity based on naturally acquired infection disappears," he explained.

Dr. Nemerson added that we have to depend upon surviving now until a vaccine comes out that is highly effective and then we can "immunize a massive part of our population to protect us.

Dr. Nemerson added that he has seen no evidence of COVID-19 mutating and doesn't believe that theory makes sense.

Gretchen Parsons is an anchor, reporter and producer at KTVB since 2016. You can follow her on Instagram @gretchenparsonsKTVB or  @gretchenKTVB on Twitter.

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