A COVID vaccine for younger children is coming, but won’t be required in Georgia schools for now

Ashanti Booker, a registered nurse with the DeKalb County Board of Health, gives a Covid-19 vaccination to Raya High, 13, at a mobile clinic at Decatur High School on  July 19, 2021. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine may soon be authorized for emergency use with children as young as 5. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Ashanti Booker, a registered nurse with the DeKalb County Board of Health, gives a Covid-19 vaccination to Raya High, 13, at a mobile clinic at Decatur High School on July 19, 2021. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine may soon be authorized for emergency use with children as young as 5. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The imminent arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine for younger children promises to suppress the spread of the virus, making schools safer and offering a glimmer of hope for parents looking to restore some normalcy into their children’s lives.

It remains to be seen, though, how many Georgia parents will get their children vaccinated, a decision they will make without requirements from their schools. While vaccination against diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella have been mandatory in public schools for years, the state has no immediate plans to add a COVID-19 vaccine to the list.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is poised to become the first for children ages 5-11. An advisory panel for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday recommended authorizing it for the youngest school-aged children. The use with children ages 5-11 would occur under what the federal government calls an Emergency Use Authorization, or EUA, the same authority that has allowed 12- to 15-year-olds access since May. Pfizer has been fully approved for those 16 and older since August.

No state mandate will happen in the near term for children.

“Dr. (Kathleen) Toomey has consistently said she would not implement mandates for vaccines that are still under EUA,” a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health, said in an email about the state’s public health commissioner.

Student mandates are rare given how new this vaccine is. Several school districts in California are requiring students to get vaccinated, and now two of them — Los Angeles and San Diego — have been sued over it. The lawsuits argue that only the state can require vaccination in schools, according to Education Week, a news organization that has been tracking vaccine mandates across the country. Minnesota is trying the carrot approach, the publication reported, offering cash and and a chance at scholarship money to 12- to 17-year-olds who get vaccinated.

So far, nearly half of of children ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated nationwide, but in Georgia about a third are. The state’s adult vaccination rate also lags the nation’s, and there has been strong pushback in Georgia against vaccination mandates.

Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to file a lawsuit this week that targets an order by President Joe Biden requiring federal executive branch employees and contractors to be vaccinated. In May, Kemp issued an order prohibiting Georgia agencies, service providers and properties from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination. In September, when City Schools of Decatur implemented a vaccination mandate for staff, his office said it was a clear violation of that order.

Decatur Superintendent Maggie Fehrman backed off the idea of a student mandate, saying only Toomey’s agency could require vaccines in schools.

“While the Board and I agree that vaccinations are the best way out of this pandemic, requiring them for students is simply something we cannot do at this time,” she wrote in a September update to parents.

Teacher advocates are staying on the sidelines.

The Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the largest such group in the state, says vaccination should be “strongly encouraged” but parents should have the final say. Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said her group is encouraging vaccination as public health leaders advise, but is relying on the state to make a science-based decision on mandates.

Robert Costley, leader of the main advocacy group for Georgia superintendents and school administrators, cautioned against mandates with such a new vaccine.

Parents should be allowed to make the decision for their children, said Costley, executive director of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders. “We’ve learned in education if you try to force things, people would be more inclined to resist.”

Like state officials, Costley said he knew of no district that has mandated vaccination of students. They understand mandate authority rests with the state, he said.

School districts and local health departments are taking varied approaches to the vaccination of young children.

Fulton County Superintendent Mike Looney is neutral about it, telling his school board last week that his district is not requiring or “promoting” vaccination, though he said case counts have dropped as more people got shots.

The DeKalb County Board of Health said it has no mass vaccination events planned for students ages 5-11, but Marietta City Schools is planning a clinic for them in early November. Marietta falls under Cobb & Douglas Public Health, which said it is “working on the logistics for several possible events.”

In rural Georgia, the West Central Health District is not planning vaccination events but will be training nurse managers to vaccinate young children “since this age group will be more challenging than the others,” a spokeswoman said.

The combined Gwinnett, Newton & Rockdale County Health Departments is planning to vaccinate young children at health centers in all three counties and may expand access further depending on demand. The tri-county agency is also encouraging pediatricians to offer the vaccine, saying parents would likely feel more comfortable having their child’s doctor administer the shots.

Pediatricians took a backseat after Pfizer was authorized for kids as young as 12.

Dr. Hugo Scornik, a Conyers pediatrician, expects his fellow doctors to be more engaged this time.

It was difficult for them this summer because the Pfizer doses had to be stored in expensive deep freezers and were delivered in such big batches that spoilage was a concern.

Now, pediatricians are being told that the vaccine can last 10 weeks in the kind of cold storage units that are already common in their offices, he said. Also, the state will deliver batches as small as a hundred doses soon after authorization, starting with 300 initially.

The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics chapter in Georgia said he’s been getting emails about the vaccine from colleagues who didn’t vaccinate older kids, and said their offices are more inviting for nervous children than a big vaccination site would be.

“We don’t want little kids standing in line,” Scornik said. It’s essential to win over parents quickly because children can infect them, and other adults, including vulnerable grandparents, he said, noting that the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are prime disease spreaders. More than four in 10 adult Georgians are not fully vaccinated.

Half of infected children show no signs of having the virus, making them a danger to those around them, he said. “Children 5 to 11 are thought to be a significant source of spread of the disease to families, so I think this is a really important moment for our country.”

Georgia and COVID-19 as of Oct. 25

Percent of U.S. population: 3.2

Percent of U.S. cases last 7 days: 1.8

Cumulative cases: 1,625,399

Cumulative deaths: 28,519

Percent fully vaccinated: 47.6

Percent fully vaccinated ages 12-plus: 56.2

Percent fully vaccinated ages 12-17: 34.4

Percent fully vaccinated ages 18-plus: 58.5

Percent fully vaccinated ages 65-plus: 78.1

United States and COVID-19 as of Oct. 25

Percent fully vaccinated aged 12-plus: 67.2

Percent fully vaccinated aged 12-17: 49.1

Percent fully vaccinated aged 18-plus: 69.0

Percent fully vaccinated aged 65-plus: 84.7

SOURCE: HealthData.gov, which is managed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

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