Infectious disease expert at Fauci's NIAID undercuts the boss by challenging school mask mandates

Scientist Margery Smelkinson discloses her NIAID affiliation on Twitter but not her writing. Continued masking is "unnecessary, even in schools and among the unvaccinated" in Maryland where NIH is based, she says.

Updated: January 27, 2022 - 10:55pm

An infectious disease scientist in Anthony Fauci's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is undermining his promotion of continued masking while skirting direct confrontation with NIAID's director of 38 years.

Margery Smelkinson identifies her NIAID affiliation on Twitter, where she regularly questions COVID-19 policies, but she hasn't otherwise removed her mask, so to speak.

The scientist made perhaps her biggest splash Wednesday with an Atlantic essay questioning the CDC's purported evidence for COVID-19 mask mandates in schools, including a North Carolina study promoted by the National Institutes of Health, which oversees NIAID.

While the NIH's safe school reopening guide called masks "very effective at slowing the spread," Smelkinson called the North Carolina study and others weak because they didn't isolate the impact of masks and had no control group.

"The time has come to pivot towards mask-optional policies," she tweeted. Mask mandates in schools are neither "based on robust evidence" nor "balanced against potential harms."

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An Atlantic reader wouldn't know the scientist's affiliation with NIAID or NIH, however. Neither is mentioned in Smelkinson's byline for the essay, which was tweeted by former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang.

It's also missing from Smelkinson's pandemic-related writing going back to fall 2020 and her media appearances, in which she promotes school and other reopening policies.

"Views are my own (says in bio)," Smelkinson responded to Just the News in September when asked if she feared NIAID reprisal for potentially undermining its recommendations on Twitter. "Just a scientist studying [infectious disease] for 14 years."

She clarified Thursday that the federal government bars employees from disclosing their affiliations in their personal capacity without a disclaimer. "Most publications do not put a disclaimer so I don't list my affiliation," Smelkinson told Just the News, but didn't answer whether she had asked if they would include both.

'I will throw a child at you'

Ongoing school mask mandates have become a culture-war flashpoint across the country and especially in Virginia since the election of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

He issued an executive order giving parents the choice of whether their children wear masks in school, prompting mostly Northern Virginia school districts to sue to block the order. 

In response, the Virginia-based "Mask Off Monday" campaign called on parents to send their children to school maskless on Jan. 24. It claimed the defiant students were "segregated ... bullied and harassed," and some suspended, but others "were respected and have not worn a mask to school since."

A Loudoun County news outlet and Citizen Free Press documented some clashes in the county's schools.

In New York, meanwhile, Half Hollow Hills School District teacher Phil Iconis went viral for a TikTok video promising to "throw a child at you" if anyone at school questions his decision to wear a mask, assuming the district goes mask-optional. 

Half Hollow Hills Central School District told Just the News that the teacher, whom it didn't name, had been "reassigned pending the district's investigation into the matter." Public Relations Director Charles Parker said employees' personal social media "do not reflect the District's opinions, beliefs or values."

By contrast, Smelkinson's writing has been much less heated and even evolved along with the pandemic. She was promoting school reopening with masks a year ago and personally lobbied Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan

Last fall, she urged full reopening in Montgomery County, where her children attend public school and NIH is based. Smelkinson is also a leader in the parent group Together Again MCPS.

By summer 2021, the scientist was encouraging Maryland schools en masse to dump mask mandates, claiming that the state's widespread COVID immunity made masking "unnecessary, even in schools and among the unvaccinated."

Smelkinson sought to put her advocacy into policy by applying for a vacant seat on the Board of Education this fall, but she wasn't chosen.

Her Atlantic essay cautioned against "a pivot" to higher-grade masks, which Montgomery County started distributing in schools this month. The FDA has not approved N95s for children, and Chinese-made KN95s require a "very tight seal" that is "unrealistic" in schools, Smelkinson worte.

"Early-pandemic recommendations to mask at school, soon followed by mandates, were laid down in the absence of data," she wrote with public health professor Leslie Bienan and emergency medicine doctor Jeanne Noble. "We should not repeat this mistake with a new generation of masks." 

Her coauthors' affiliations, with Oregon Health and Science University and the University of California San Francisco, were mentioned. Noble previously shared her research on COVID lockdown's toll on young people with Just the News.

Neither NIH nor NIAID responded to queries about Smelkinson's Atlantic essay or Twitter feed or whether their scientists are free to publicly disagree with agency findings and recommendations.