California schools reopened for the fall semester with relaxed COVID-19 protocols and low vaccination rates among younger students, presenting a new test for the pandemic’s trajectory as some experts expect another spike in cases when winter comes.
The general move away from expansive masking and testing requirements reflects officials’ reliance on the other tools at schools’ disposal and comes as California enjoys sustained drops in recently reported coronavirus-positive infections and hospitalizations.
But health experts are watching to see how schools fare in the coming weeks, especially considering the number of young people who are not yet vaccinated.
Only 37% of children ages 5 to 11 have completed their primary vaccination series in California, quite low compared to the 67% vaccination rate for adolescents ages 12 to 17 and 78% for adults 18 to 49 years old, depending on the state. Department of Public Health.
In Los Angeles County35% of children ages 5 to 11 have completed their primary immunization series, as have 79% of children ages 12 to 17. By contrast, in Northern California’s most populous county, Saint Clare63% of younger children have completed their primary vaccination series and 94% of adolescents have.
With no mandatory masks or regular testing at school, one of the best ways to protect young people against infection is to “vaccinate your child,” UC San Francisco pediatrician and epidemiologist Dr. George Rutherford told a town hall. from campus last week.
But despite months of messaging and availability, uptake of the vaccine among younger school-age children has slowed and resistance has apparently hardened. poll from the The Kaiser Family Foundation found that between January and July, the proportion of parents who said their children ages 5 to 11 had been vaccinated increased from 33% to 40%. At the same time, the proportion of parents who said they would “definitely not” vaccinate their children increased from 24% to 37%.
Since children have been much less likely than adults to get seriously ill from COVID-19 during the pandemic, many parents may simply not see the need for vaccines. But officials and experts say vaccination doesn’t just help protect the person who rolls up their sleeves.
“Living through times of high viral transmission is like going through a strong storm. While it is very helpful if each of us can have a good rain gear, when the storm is long lasting we often need extra help from others,” said Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.
Getting vaccinated and getting boosters, he added during a recent briefing, “is a way of showing that we care. Vaccines not only protect us from serious diseases, but also reduce the risk of spread.”
In addition, health officials say that because children are supposed to be healthy and are not likely to die from any cause, it is important to compare the infant death rate from COVID-19 with the pediatric death rate for other reasons. for your age group. . By that measure, COVID-19 sets off alarms.
For the 12-month period ending October 1. On February 2, COVID-19 was the eighth leading cause of death among children ages 5 to 11. A report from the Kaiser Family Foundation published in March it said COVID-19 was among the top four causes of death for all age groups 5 and older.
and a published study in June said the 1,088 COVID-19 deaths that occurred in youth ages 19 and under in the US, with 764 occurring in the 12-month period ending March 31, made COVID-19 one of the leading causes of death among that group.
Health officials have noted that school children in California should be vaccinated against diseases for which there are far fewer deaths or cases that cause serious illness such as paralysis. Polio vaccines, for example, are required for California schoolchildren, but there have been no cases of paralysis from polio in California in many years.
In Los Angeles County, 13 children have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Two were under 5 years old, four were between 5 and 11 years old, and seven were adolescents.
US children ages 5 to 11 became eligible for their COVID-19 vaccines last November and for a booster in May. A study of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for this age group during the first surge of omicron in Singapore found that completing the primary vaccination series was 83% effective against hospitalization.
Pediatricians say the COVID-19 vaccine is safe. “We haven’t seen any serious side effects in kids ages 5 to 11,” said Dr. Rea Boyd. wrote on a website published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. “It’s safe and it works.”
COVID-19 vaccines can also reduce the chance of long-term side effects after experiencing COVID-19, including long covid. Furthermore, a diagnosis of COVID-19 is associated with a higher subsequent probability of developing diabetes for both adults and children.
Children under the age of 5 became eligible for COVID-19 vaccines in June. Pfizer said Tuesday that its vaccine was 73% effective in preventing COVID-19 among children ages 6 months to 4 years. Before the vaccines were available, pediatricians said the Omicron variant pushed hospitalization rates for children 4 and younger to the highest level in the entire pandemic.
Although this latest wave infected many who were fully vaccinated or had previous brushes with the coronavirus, officials say vaccination still provides some protection against infection. In mid-July, unvaccinated Californians were seven times more likely to contract COVID-19 compared to boosted and vaccinated people, according to to the state Department of Public Health.
This back-to-school season is California’s first in the pandemic era without a state-required mask mandate in indoor K-12 classrooms. The Los Angeles Unified School District, which began its school year last week, has also ended weekly coronavirus testing.
Some college campuses that brought back indoor mask mandates in response to the Omicron wave of late spring and summer, including University of California at Los Angeles other University of California at Irvinerescinded those orders last week.
A state push to require COVID-19 vaccines for K-12 children has also been delayed until next year at the earliest, though such requirements remain in place for students and employees within the UC and Cal State systems.
In its ultimate guide For schools, the state health department outlined a series of recommendations, including ensuring students and staff are up-to-date on immunizations, optimizing indoor air quality, promoting good hand hygiene and supporting access to tests.
“COVID-19 is here to stay, but we have learned methods and acquired tools to lessen its impact on our health and well-being,” officials wrote in that guidance. “California schools can sustainably and adaptively manage this disease.”
The department also continues to strongly recommend the use of masks in closed public places. However, in places like Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area, where mask-wearing has long been considered routine, the practice has become noticeably rarer over the course of this year.
The looser rules come as rates of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have been falling for weeks. As of Friday, Los Angeles County recorded about 3,000 coronavirus cases per day over the previous seven-day period, less than half the summer peak of nearly 6,900 cases per day.
Coronavirus-positive hospitalizations in Los Angeles County also continue to fall. There were 827 positive coronavirus patients at county hospitals as of Thursday, down 38% from the summer peak of 1,329.
Los Angeles County is reporting 96 COVID-19 deaths a week, up 16% from the previous week’s count of 83.
California is averaging 8,900 coronavirus cases per day for the seven-day period ending Thursday, down 16% from the previous week.
As of Thursday, there were 3,143 positive coronavirus patients in California hospitals, down 35% from the summer peak of 4,843, set on July 26.
The state reported 343 COVID-19 deaths during the seven-day period ending Thursday, the highest weekly death count since the week ending April 24.
Even with the recent declines, case and hospital metrics remain well above the lull that followed the initial wave of Omicron that hit last fall and winter, and experts say vaccinating schoolchildren and stimulating adults will be important to prepare for a possible resurgence of the coronavirus later this year.
Officials are also hopeful that people will receive the newer version of Omicron’s specific vaccine, designed to target the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants. The shots could be available in September if they are given the green light by the US Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I think it will go a long way in preventing infections, and I think it will go a long way in keeping people out of the hospital,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, speaking about the new reinforcements at a forum last week.
Jha said it will be important to get up to speed on COVID-19 and flu shots before winter. Even before the pandemic, the flu itself “really puts a strain on our health system,” Jha said. “Our health system is going to get into serious trouble unless we are very proactive.”
He also urged schools and building owners to improve indoor air quality, adding that encouraging people to wear high-quality masks in crowded indoor spaces will keep infections low. Widespread coronavirus testing and COVID-19 medications can also help.
“If we do all of those things, I’m confident we’ll keep all the businesses open, we’ll keep all the schools open, we don’t have to have hospitals that are overwhelmed and can’t take care of other people, and we can get through what could be a tough fall and winter.” Jha said.