Back to school: Georgia among worst for children’s COVID-19 vaccines

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Major pharmacies now make the COVID-19 vaccine available to everyone age 5 and older.The only vaccine authorized for children 5-11 so far is Pfizer, and it’s in a special, smaller dose. .CVS Pharmacy says it has the pediatric vaccine available at 266 locations in Georgia. .Walgreens has begun administering children’s vaccines in select stores.Most county health departments are also offering the vaccine. You can sign up through their websites

Pediatric researcher: “No school will go untouched” by virus

This week, for the first time during the pandemic, the school year starts in Georgia with all children being eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, including preschoolers.

Nonetheless, the state ranks nears the bottom nationwide in vaccination rates for children and teens, according to the most recent American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report on the subject.

With the highly-contagious BA.5 variant driving high community transmission levels across Georgia, large numbers of unvaccinated children going back to school together could lead to outbreaks, some experts warn.

“It’s a terrible situation,” said Dr. Sean O’Leary, chairman of the committee on infectious diseases at the AAP.

“We will almost certainly see more cases of COVID in places that have low vaccination coverage like Georgia,” he said. “No school will go untouched.”

Dr. O’Leary said the state’s low pediatric vaccination rates are in line with the South as a region, which he called “striking,” particularly among 5- to 11-year-old children. Only 23% of children these ages in Georgia have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the July 27 report, based on CDC data. Nationwide, 37% of 5-11-year-olds have received at least one dose.

The low percentages of the state’s 2.5 million school-aged children who have received vaccinations for the virus put Georgia anywhere between the bottom 5 states to the bottom 20 states nationwide, depending on age category, according to the report. The AAP looks at children 6 months-4 years old, 5 -11 and 12-17, the categories corresponding to each vaccine rollout.

The state Department of Health uses slightly different age categories, but according to the latest figures, the percentages of the population with at least one dose of the vaccine ranged from 2.5% of children up to 4 years old to 56 % of children ages 15 to 19. These numbers also would rank Georgia among the least-vaccinated states.

“It’s not a good spot to be in,” said Amber Schmidtke, a public health researcher who tracks COVID-19 in Georgia. “We know schools are sites for all kinds of transmissions. We’re likely going to see spikes, probably about two weeks after the school year begins — once kids have had the chance to mingle and share germs.”

If this happens, consequences would include the need for children and teens to isolate and quarantine, resulting in missing school, and the potential immediate impact on their health, said Dr. O’Leary. Also, “Who are the children bringing COVID home to? There may be immune-compromised or elderly adults in the house.”

Then there’s the issue of long COVID, or symptoms appearing weeks or even months after a person no longer tests positive for the virus, Dr. O’Leary said.

This is another thing that’s different this school year, he noted: several recent studies have begun outlining the relative risk and consequences of long COVID in children and teens. One study released in late June in the journal Nature reported a meta-analysis of existing research on long COVID in children and estimated that 25%, or one in four pediatric COVID cases, may lead to long COVID. The analysis found for children’s symptoms included, in order of prevalence: “mood” changes such as anxiety or depression, fatigue, sleep problems, headaches and respiratory problems.

Dr. O’Leary noted that “a number of studies suggest that vaccines offer protection against long COVID, and even if you get a break-through infection, you’re less likely to have post-COVID symptoms.”

Dr. O’Leary, who is also professor of pediatrics at University of Colorado Anschutz, said he hoped parents considered the potential consequences of contracting COVID when deciding whether to vaccinate their children. Vaccinations for pre-schoolers ages 6 months to 4 years were approved in June, but he noted that a mid-July Kaiser Family Foundation survey of 1,800 adults found that slightly more than half of parents said the vaccine posed a “bigger risk” to their infants and toddlers than the virus itself. “There’s the misconception that COVID is a sort of benign disease in children,” Dr. O’Leary said.

Schmidtke, who publishes a weekly newsletter, “The Covid Digest,” said she doesn’t expect “a big rush to get vaccinated” in Georgia families. “There’s a desire to look the other way, and pretend none of this is happening,” she said.

“Sometimes, it feels like we don’t have enough adults in the room, to think about the long-term consequences of what we’re doing here.”

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