California schools have reopened for the fall semester with relaxed COVID-19 protocols and low student vaccination rates among younger children, providing a new test of the pandemic’s trajectory as some experts expect cases to rise further as winter arrives.
The general move away from sweeping masking and testing requirements reflects officials’ confidence in the other tools available to schools and comes as California is seeing a continued decline in newly reported infections and coronavirus-positive hospitalizations.
But health experts are watching how schools fare in the coming weeks, especially given that many youngsters are unvaccinated.
Only 37% of children ages 5 to 11 have completed their primary vaccination course in California, quite low compared to the 67% coverage rate for youth 12 to 17 and 78% for adults 18 to 49, the state said Department of Public Health.
In Los Angeles County, 35% of children ages 5-11 have completed their primary vaccination course, as have 79% of children ages 12-17. In contrast, in Santa Clara County, Northern California’s most populous county, 63% of younger children have completed their primary vaccinations and 94% of adolescents.
Without mandatory masks or regular testing at school, one of the best ways to protect teens from infection is to “get your child vaccinated,” said pediatrician and epidemiologist Dr. George Rutherford of UC San Francisco at a city hall on campus on Friday.
But despite months of news flow and availability, uptake of the vaccine among the youngest school-age children has slowed and resistance has seemingly hardened. Surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that between January and July, the proportion of parents who said their children aged 5 to 11 had been vaccinated rose from 33% to 40%. At the same time, the proportion of parents who stated that they would “definitely not” have their child vaccinated rose from 24% to 37%.
Given that children have been far less likely than adults to become seriously ill with COVID-19 throughout the pandemic, many parents may simply not see the need for the shots. But officials and experts say vaccinations don’t just help protect the person who rolls up their sleeve.
“Living during times of high virus transmission is like weathering a bad storm. While it is very helpful when each of us is able to have good rain gear, during a long storm we often need additional help from others,” said Barbara Ferrer, director of public health for Los Angeles County.
Getting vaccinated and boosted, she added at a recent briefing, “is a way of showing that we care. Vaccines not only protect us from serious diseases, they also reduce the risk of spreading them.”
In addition, health officials say it’s important to compare the child death rate from COVID-19 to the pediatric death rate from other causes for their age group, because children are meant to be healthy and are not likely to die from any causes. With this measure, COVID-19 is ringing alarm bells.
For the 12 months ended October 2, COVID-19 was the eighth leading cause of death in children ages 5 to 11. A Kaiser Family Foundation report released in March said COVID-19 was among the top four causes of death for all ages 5 and older.
And a study published in June said the 1,088 COVID-19 deaths among U.S. youth 19 and younger — 764 of them in the 12 months ended March 31 — have made COVID-19 a leading cause of death among people this age group.
Health officials have warned that schoolchildren in California need to be vaccinated against diseases that cause far fewer deaths or those that cause serious illnesses like paralysis. For example, polio vaccinations are required for schoolchildren in California, but there have been no cases of polio paralysis in California for many years.
In Los Angeles County, 13 children have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Two were younger than 5 years old, four were between 5 and 11 years old and seven were teenagers.
US children between the ages of 5 and 11 were eligible for their COVID-19 vaccinations last November and a booster shot in May. A study of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for this age group during the first Omicron surge in Singapore found that completion of primary immunization was 83% effective against hospitalization.
Pediatricians say COVID-19 vaccine is safe. “We have not seen any serious side effects in children aged 5 to 11,” wrote Dr. Rhea Boyd on a website published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. “It’s safe and it works.”
COVID-19 vaccinations can also reduce the likelihood of long-term side effects after experiencing COVID-19, including long COVID. In addition, a COVID-19 diagnosis is associated with a later higher likelihood of developing diabetes for both adults and children.
Children under the age of 5 have been eligible for COVID-19 vaccines since June. Pfizer said Tuesday its vaccine is 73% effective at preventing COVID-19 in children ages 6 months to 4 years. Before the shots became available, pediatricians said the Omicron variant had pushed hospitalization rates for children ages 4 and younger to the highest levels in the entire pandemic.
While this latest wave infected many people who were fully vaccinated or had previous exposure to the coronavirus, officials say vaccination still offers some protection against infection. As of mid-July, unvaccinated Californians were about seven times more likely to contract COVID-19 than vaccinated and boosted individuals, according to the state Department of Public Health.
This back-to-school season marks the first in California in the pandemic era without a state-mandated 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 requirements in response to the Omicron surge in late spring and summer, including UCLA and UC Irvine, revoked those orders last week.
A statewide push to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for K-12 children has also been delayed until next year at the earliest, though such requirements for students and staff remain within the UC and Cal State systems.
In its latest guide for schools, the state health department has made a number of recommendations – including ensuring students and staff are up to date on vaccinations, optimizing indoor air quality, promoting good hand hygiene and supporting access to testing.
“COVID-19 is here to stay, but we have learned methods and acquired tools to reduce its impact on our health and well-being,” officials wrote in those guidelines. “California’s schools can manage this disease in a sustainable and adaptive way.”
The department also continues to strongly recommend masking in indoor public spaces. However, in places like LA County and the San Francisco Bay Area, where masking has long been considered routine, the practice has declined significantly over the course of this year.
The easing rules come as the number of coronavirus cases and hospital admissions have been falling for weeks. As of Tuesday, LA County was recording about 3,200 coronavirus cases a day for the previous seven days — less than half the summer peak of nearly 6,900 cases a day.
But the decline could be slowing. LA County’s case rate is down 7% from the previous week. That’s a more modest drop than the previous week-on-week change, which was down 16%.
Coronavirus-positive hospital admissions in LA County also continue to decline. As of Monday, there were 915 coronavirus-positive patients in the county’s hospitals, down 31% from the summer peak of 1,329.
California recorded an average of about 9,500 coronavirus cases per day in the seven days ended Monday, down 18% from the previous week. Unlike LA County, California is not seeing a significant slowdown in the decline in cases. the previous week-on-week decline was also 18%.
As of Monday, there were 3,505 coronavirus-positive patients in California hospitals, down 27% from the summer high of 4,843 set on July 26.
The state reported 326 COVID-19 deaths for the seven-day period ended Monday — the highest weekly death toll since the week ended May 1.
Despite the recent declines, case and hospital metrics remain well above the doldrums after the first Omicron wave that hit last fall and winter, and experts say it will be important to vaccinate schoolchildren and empower adults to brace themselves prepare for a possible coronavirus rebound later this year.
Officials also hope people will get the latest Omicron-specific version of the vaccine, which targets subvariants BA.4 and BA.5. The footage could be available in September if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention give the green light.
On Monday, Pfizer asked the FDA to approve its new Omicron COVID-19 booster shot for people ages 12 and older. Moderna made the same request for its adult Omicron booster on Tuesday.
“I think it’s going to do a lot to prevent infection and I think it’s going to do a lot to keep people out of the hospital,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, in a forum last Week of the New Boosters.
Jha said it’s important to stay up to date on COVID-19 and flu shots ahead of the winter. Even before the pandemic, the flu itself is “really taking a toll on our healthcare system,” Jha said. “Our healthcare system is going to be in serious trouble unless we’re very proactive.”
He also urged schools and building owners to improve indoor air quality, adding that encouraging people to wear quality masks in crowded indoor spaces will keep infections down. Widespread coronavirus testing and anti-COVID medication can also help.
“If we do all of these things, I’m confident that we’ll keep every business open, we’ll keep every school open, we won’t have to have hospitals that are overwhelmed and unable to care for other people, and we can get through what could be a.” tough autumn and winter,” said Jha.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-08-24/california-schools-have-fewer-covid-rules-lagging-vaccine-rate California schools have fewer COVID rules, lagging vaccine rate