(By Drazen Zigic_Shutterstock)

By Alexis Taylor
Special to the AFRO

Though Pfizer-BioNTech received permission to lower the age threshold for their COVID-19 vaccine last month, pharmaceutical companies have yet to present an option for millions of school-aged children younger than 12.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 5.2 million pre-kindergarten students are expected to enroll in a public school for the 2021-2022 school year. Another 11 million are projected to become first, second or third graders in the coming months.

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) advisory committee for Vaccine and Related Biological Products discussed the vaccination of even younger populations set to return to public school classrooms in the Fall. 

“We are going to have to have a highly vaccinated or highly immune population for years- if not- decades,” said Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the advisory panel, on June 10. “It just seems silly to think that we’re not going to have to include children as part of that since they can suffer and be hospitalized and occasionally die from this virus.”

“Three hundred have died from this virus- at least.” 

The CDC counts 141 million Americans as fully vaccinated. Offit noted that COVID hospitalizations and the complication of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children are down, but said the winter season will test prevention measures. 

“This – at its heart-  is still a winter respiratory virus. Come winter, we’re going to see how well we’re doing in terms of population immunity,” he said. “We have variants that are becoming more contagious, which is what bad viruses do as they try to adapt to the human population.” 

The panel met virtually due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has taken more than 596,000 American lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In December, the FDA approved usage of the vaccine in minors as young as sixteen.

The FDA lowered the age again, May 10, citing the fact that between Mar.1 and Apr. 30th “approximately 1.5 million COVID-19 cases in individuals 11 to 17 years” were reported to the CDC.

Public school districts across the country have already announced that at present, they will not mandate a COVID-19 vaccine for students returning to in-person classes for the 2021-2022 school year.

“While the COVID-19 vaccine is currently not required to attend school next year, DCPS students are required to have their childhood vaccinations up to date to participate in summer programming and to attend school in the fall,” Deputy Press Secretary Deborah Isaac, of D.C. Public School’s (DCPS) Office of Communications and Engagement Office. 

Vaccine requirements for a host of diseases vary from state to state. Students enrolling in Maryland public schools must have several vaccinations completed before enrollment.

According to the Maryland Department of Health, students must prove that they have been inoculated against varicella or previously infected with the virus, more commonly known as chickenpox. 

Tetanus, diphtheria, and polio are all on the list of required vaccines for students under the age of 18 in Maryland, even though the CDC reports 1979 as the last year a case originated in the United States. 

According to the National Conference of State Legislature (NCSL), residents in Washington, D.C. and 44 states can use a religious exemption to override vaccination requirements. A total of 15 states “allow philosophical exemptions for children whose parents object to immunizations because of personal, moral or other beliefs.” 

The CDC had a medical epidemiologist from the Division of Viral Diseases, Respiratory Viruses Branch, on hand to discuss major take-aways from investigations of coronavirus transmission in student populations. 

“In a group of children where it is introduced, and there are not a whole lot of mitigation measures, it will transmit throughout- that’s one thing,” said Dr. Hanna Kirking. “The second thing would be that the background community transmission definitely does affect how much introduction and transmission we will see in a child-centered environment.”

CDC investigations found that when coronavirus transmission rates were higher in the community, there were more COVID-19 infections amongst student populations. When the numbers of coronavirus transmission were lower in the community, fewer students transmitted the virus in school settings. 

Torn from a page in the 1918 pandemic playbook, face masks have once again been key in slowing the pace of another global pandemic. Kirking said younger populations do have tools already proven to save lives.

“When we did transmission investigations in schools- largely last winter when case counts were high- those other mitigation measures worked,” said Kirking.

“Those other mitigation measures even outside of vaccines were effective. If we, potentially, are in a position where some schools or states might decide not to continue with those, we might see a very different pattern.”

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Alexis Taylor

AFRO Staff Writer