The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval last week of the Pfizer-BioNTech two-dose COVID-19 vaccine for adults is excellent news for every family heading back to school this fall. Approval will now offer more assurance to unvaccinated adults who were uncomfortable with emergency use authorization of the vaccine and encourage them to move forward in protecting themselves, their communities, and our nation’s children.
As we wait now for emergency use authorization for children under 12 years of age, the very best thing that we can do to protect children is for every eligible individual to get vaccinated with the newly approved vaccine. That means anyone aged 12 or older. To that end, it’s time now for policymakers, school leaders, and school districts to encourage as many people as possible to get vaccinated.
COVID-19 among children is often asymptomatic or mild but can cause severe disease, as evidenced by recently increasing hospitalization rates among younger populations. Children can experience severe disease, including multisystem inflammatory syndrome, death, or so-called “long COVID” with symptoms lasting months after recovery from acute infection. In total since the beginning of pandemic, more than 400 children and adolescents nationwide have died because of COVID-19. By comparison, a Boeing 747 typically holds about 366 passengers. A plane crash killing that many children and adolescents would be considered a national tragedy, and yet many people still dismiss COVID-19 in children as an insignificant risk. As pediatricians, we know that simply is not true.
Most adults working in schools are already serving as role models in their communities by leading through example and getting vaccinated. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from April 2021, nearly 80 percent of teachers had received at least one dose. In July, the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second-largest teachers’ union, announced that 90 percent of its educators and school staff are vaccinated. However, various surveys show that 9 percent to 13 percent of educators still haven’t been vaccinated, representing about 1 million school staff nationwide. These unvaccinated employees pose a risk to themselves—because we have proof that vaccines save lives—and also to students and their families.
As the United States experiences another surge in new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, including among children and adolescents, several states and major cities have already implemented vaccine and/or testing requirements for educators and school staff, including California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, New York City, Denver, and Chicago. Some of these policies include test-out options, which allow school staff to undergo weekly testing.
Locally here in North Carolina, the Orange County school district has given teachers 30 days from full FDA approval to get vaccinated, which would give them until Sept. 23. We think vaccine mandates like these for school staff can help reduce transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19, prevent serious disease and death due to COVID-19, and help protect unvaccinated children not yet eligible for vaccination.
We have many tools available to fight COVID-19, and the two most effective are vaccines and universal masking. But these tools are only effective when they are actually used.
It’s the responsibility of every adult who works around children to be fully vaccinated while school is in session. This means teachers, classroom aides, administrative and janitorial staff, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, school nurses, school resource officers, volunteers, eligible students, and any other visitors.
For the 20 percent of the population—or 93 million people—who haven’t taken on this responsibility yet, it’s time. Adults everywhere need to roll up their sleeves and fight this pandemic together. There is no more time to wait to protect our nation’s most valuable resource—our children.