State addressing vaccine challenges for children ahead of school year

STATE OFFICIALS are determining plans for the upcoming school year for both vaccinations and creating healthy environments in school in case vaccines for younger children are not available by the fall. AP FILE PHOTO/TED S. WARREN
STATE OFFICIALS are determining plans for the upcoming school year for both vaccinations and creating healthy environments in schools in case vaccines for younger children are not approved by the fall. / AP FILE PHOTO/TED S. WARREN

PROVIDENCE – While children across Rhode Island are enjoying summer vacation after a very unique academic year, the state is working against the clock to prepare for a return to in-person learning in local schools and having a healthy environment for students.

Throughout the 2020-21 academic year, public school districts had to juggle between in-person, online-only and hybrid learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in late June, Gov. Daniel J. McKee, R.I. Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott and R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green announced new guidance for school districts to bring students back into the classroom full-time. Field trips, full capacity on buses and optional mask wearing for vaccinated individuals are among the recommended guidance offered by state officials when school resumes in the fall.

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However, the guidance that the R.I. Department of Education offered is based on the availability of vaccines and stabilized infection rates. Currently, vaccination rates for school-aged children that are eligible for vaccines remains low and there is still no vaccine approved for children younger than 12.

According to data from the R.I. Department of Health, only 28,620 children ages 15-18 are partially vaccinated (54% of the eligible population) and just 15,605 children ages 0-14 received their first shot – 9%. However, it was not clear what percentage of eligible children in that age bracket, ages 12-14, had been vaccinated.

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Regarding full vaccinations, 24,816 children ages 15-18 have gotten both shots, or 46%, while 7%, or 12,470 children 0-14, are completely vaccinated for the coronavirus.

OVER 45% of Rhode Islanders aged 15-18 had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by mid-July, a slightly higher share than adjacent age brackets, but below the vaccination rates of older residents. / COURTESY R.I. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH/ PBN

Even though Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer all have provided vaccinations to the public since the beginning of the year, Pfizer is the only company currently making vaccines available for children ages 12-17. Those vaccines were made available in Rhode Island in mid-May – five months after the first vaccines went live in the Ocean State.

RIDOH Executive Director of COVID Response Tom McCarthy told Providence Business News Thursday that young children who are not yet eligible for vaccines are top of mind for him with about six weeks to go before the school year begins. Along with putting plans in place to vaccinate children before the school year, McCarthy also said the state will work with local school districts to implement additional measures to keep classrooms safe if vaccines for young children are not yet ready when the first bell rings in the fall.

McCarthy said the state performed various school-based clinics, such as the one at Charette High School in the city back in May, and plan to do so again in the fall. He also said these clinics will be created for those younger than 12 when those vaccines are approved for use.

Additionally, the state is still working with community-based organizations and municipal leaders to provide target clinics to make it easy for anyone to be vaccinated, McCarthy said and also connect people with health care providers they trust to provide the right information about the vaccines.

“I want to vaccinate as many people as we can ahead of the fall before we return to school and before it gets cold out and we return indoors where we know we’re at elevated risk,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy also said the state regularly, sometimes daily, communicates with vaccine manufacturers and federal officials about where vaccine approval for those younger than 12 stands. Based on the state’s discussions, McCarthy said the state thinks it will be early fall when a vaccine will be available for young children.

However, according to NBC News Thursday, an official from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration told the network that a vaccine for young children could potentially be approved for emergency use by early to mid- winter. RIDOH did not immediately respond to questions on whether this news changes the state’s strategy about addressing vaccines for young children.

So far, the best vaccine for young children is to have more adults vaccinated, according to Dr. Wilfredo Giordano-Perez, medical director for Tri-County Community Action Agency and assistant professor at Brown University Warren Alpert Medical School.

Giordano-Perez, who serves on the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Committee, said if the idea of herd immunity is further pushed and more adults become vaccinated, then that in itself will currently protect children from getting infected with the virus. Giordano-Perez also said that while studies on the effects of the vaccines on those younger than 12 are still ongoing, he feels it is likely that the results will show that the vaccines will be safe for young children if and when eligibility for that age group becomes a reality.

However, vaccine hesitancy and a lack of primary care physicians willing to administer the vaccine is an issue, Giordano-Perez said, which could hamper the state’s vaccination push.

“The reality is those vaccine-hesitant people are very, very unlikely to get a vaccine outside of a health center or a clinic. Because vaccine-hesitant people we know tend to trust most often their actual doctors’ opinions,” Giordano-Perez said. “So, if we can’t get these vaccines into health center offices, I think our chances of vaccinating vaccine-hesitant parents and children are going to be quite low.”

McCarthy also said pediatricians are a key partner in helping get shots in children’s arms.

Last year, the state procured high-efficiency particulate air filters and other protective equipment for classrooms in addition to receiving federal financial assistance, McCarthy said, and school districts will be better resourced this year with federal funding for creating safer classrooms even if vaccines for young children are not yet available by the fall.

Also, the state, McCarthy said, is working with school districts to create health support teams so that there is proper staffing to provide case investigations, contact tracing and asymptomatic testing in schools which, he said, was problematic last year. He also said the state will partner with RIDE to offer orientations for new students about vaccines and making physicians available for any questions.

“It’s extremely important and we’re going to pour a ton of effort into over the next six weeks before schools begin here in the fall,” McCarthy said.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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