Hundreds of universities are leading the charge on requiring vaccines, while grade schools serve as centers for both information and vaccination.
(CN) — As public health officials work to get over a plateau in demand for a Covid-19 vaccine, the education system could serve as a catalyst, driving vaccination rates over the next few months.
Universities already seem to be leading the charge on requiring vaccines. Hundreds of colleges have announced that students will need to be fully vaccinated in order to attend classes in person this fall.
New York state made its announcement on Monday concerning its public university system. Two public university systems in California also said a coronavirus vaccine will be required for students, faculty and staff — totaling, between the two states, more than 1.5 million people.
Targeting college students could move the needle on a population more inclined to hold out on vaccination. About a quarter of people between ages 18 to 29 said they want to “wait and see” before getting a shot themselves, according to recent survey data.
For even younger kids who haven’t had Covid-19 vaccine access until the recent authorization of Pfizer’s vaccine for ages 12 to 15, schools are poised to play a pivotal role — regardless of whether schools decide to mandate vaccination in the future.
Just as college requirements are contingent upon the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of Covid-19 vaccines, middle schools would likely only move toward a mandate — if at all — after the FDA approves vaccines for younger kids.
The full approval process for adolescents won’t begin for some time. Licensure applications require six months of data for the younger age group after the second vaccine doses are available.
Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health & Human Services Agency, said during a recent press briefing that FDA approval is the main reason the state is not yet considering vaccine mandates for public schools — but it’s not the only reason.
“There’s, of course, the larger conversation about where we are in the pandemic, and how the Covid vaccine fits into not just our public health considerations, but obviously legislative, and other rule-making bodies in the state,” Ghaly said. “So, a lot to consider on this.”
As schools across the country take those factors into consideration, some experts say it’s unlikely that mandates will be instated any time soon.
But schools will still play an important role in incentivizing vaccination, said Dr. Sara Bode, a primary care pediatrician and the medical director of Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s school-based and mobile health clinics.
“We can tie some of the benefits of vaccination to what happens in school,” Bode said.
She offered an example: If a student on a school sports team finds out that a teammate has tested positive for the coronavirus, that student no longer has to quarantine, provided they’ve been vaccinated.
“You’re still able to go to class, you’re able to play in that sport,” Bode said.
“That’s a pretty big motivator for many students,” she said, especially given 10-day quarantines following exposure last year, which disrupted weeks of learning and life for many students.
It’s likely that schools’ vaccination policies will vary across the country, as they do already.
Schools may also require only student athletes to get vaccinated against Covid-19, which is where some districts already draw the line.
Information for Families
Mandates aside, public schools have also been positioned as pop-up clinics and hubs for information.
“I think schools have always had a really intimate role with vaccines,” Bode said.
School nurses are already in the practice of tracking vaccinations, calling parents to let them know it’s time for their kids to get caught up and offering flu shots, for example.
“For many communities, their schools are trusted places,” Bode said. “They hear the messaging from their teachers, from their principal.” If a school offers vaccination on-site, students are spared the hassle of finding a ride and can go to get their shots together.
Messaging from schools is also key. Parents likely expect that their pediatrician will recommend a Covid-19 vaccine, Bode said. Hearing the same message at school?
“I think that just adds weight,” she said.
Those under age 18 will need a parent’s consent to get vaccinated. Most parents are on board, according to a recent survey led by Northeastern University researchers.
The researchers pointed out a significant gap between mothers and fathers in their attitudes toward vaccination. More than a quarter of mothers still say they are “extremely unlikely” to vaccinate their children, while that position is taken by just 11% of fathers.
Similarly, moms are less likely to support school vaccine mandates than other women, while dads are more likely to support the mandates than men without kids.
Parents of teenagers were also more likely to be in favor of the mandates than those who have younger kids.
Overall, 58% of people supported schools requiring Covid-19 vaccines.
Kids, Summer and Covid-19
Although kids aren’t at as high a risk for severe illness from Covid-19 compared to older adults, they are not spared from the virus: More than 300 children have died from the virus in the United States, and thousands have been hospitalized.
Some of those who got infected have also been left with lingering, long-haul symptoms, even weeks or months after getting sick, said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, during a recent NBC interview where he called the FDA’s authorization of the Pfizer vaccine for adolescents “a big deal.”
“We really want to protect adolescents — and more than that, adolescents have been taken out of social circles, out of school sports programs, out of going to the prom, out of hanging with their friends,” Collins said.
Vaccination is “a way to get us back to normal, and well in advance of getting the school season started,” he said.
The vaccine approval also came at a time when the percentage of new coronavirus cases in children is increasing, according to data compiled by the American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital Association.
Children represent 14% of cases on average, but they made up nearly a quarter of new cases for the week ending May 6.
On the one hand, that means more adults have “done a good job getting vaccinated,” Bode said. Kids make up a bigger percentage in part because fewer adults are getting infected.
The virus, however, is going to continue to find new hosts — as all viruses do — in populations of people unprotected against it.
“Unless we include children into this opportunity for Covid vaccination,” she said, “we’re not going to be able to get our community rates down and really protect them in the way that we need to.”
It’s Bode’s hope that over the summer, those adolescents who can now get vaccinated will do so. For those who haven’t, the pediatrician recommends a back to school vaccination effort come fall.
Simply having the opportunity for adolescents to get vaccinated now, especially as summer rolls around, is fortunate, Bode said.
“I’m really thankful that this was able to come through at this exact time,” she said.