Vaccinating Our Way Out of the Pandemic. Today was the first day of school for my kids, and not unlike many parents I’ve spoken with recently, I felt a mixture of emotions. Mine can best be described as belligerent optimism with a hint of foreboding. As I navigated the chaotic back to school traffic, I found myself thinking that (1) I do not miss back to school traffic and (2) the school closures back in March 2019 felt like a lifetime ago.
After spending the tail end of the 2019-2020 school year and all of last year in virtual classrooms, all three of my children (ages 6, 13 and 15) were eager to return to the classroom this fall. And up until mid-July, things were looking up. My two older children had received their vaccines. Infection rates were waning. We were even able to go on a long-overdue car trip to visit family along the east coast.
But just as things felt like they were returning to some degree of normalcy, the emergence of the Delta variant has brought on a dangerous fourth wave of COVID-19 infections. As I write this, the Texas Medical Center is experiencing record numbers of COVID hospitalizations. Nearly one in five of those cases involves children.
In spite of rising infection rates among children, public school districts across the state are being confronted with the prospect of significant fines for instituting mask mandates that fail to align with Governor Abbott’s executive order banning this public health measure. This is not exactly the start to the school year that we had in mind.
If this is where we are now, nineteen months in, how do we find our way to the other side of this pandemic?
We’ve know the answer for some time now: vaccines.
The scientific community has responded to the challenge of COVID-19 in spectacular fashion. Building on pre-existing knowledge and technology, they’ve succeeded in developing not one, not two, but three vaccines that are safe, effective and readily available in the US. As of August 23, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was granted FDA approval for those 16 and older, and trials are underway to establish safe and effective doses for children under the age of 12. Despite having a somewhat diminished effectiveness against the delta variant, all three vaccines available in the US demonstrate strong ability to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19. The vast majority of those being hospitalized in the US are unvaccinated.
To date, 51% of Americans have been fully vaccinated in the US. In Texas, the number is 46%. If vaccines are the answer, what will it take for our community to increase vaccination rates? Just as importantly, how do we help ensure the safety of our kids who are not yet eligible for the vaccine?
Though children are less likely to have severe cases of COVID-19, the number of children who do is rising, and there is concern within the medical community about the possibility of long-term complications (‘long COVID’) for children that are infected.
Schools have been bust preparing to resume more in-person learning, though the safety measures being put in place vary by district. In response to a recent question about why more precautions were not being put in place to protect students, a Board member from one of the independent school districts in the Greater Houston Area responded by saying that there was lack of consensus in the medical community about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
I have not found that to be the case.
While recommendations on prevention and treatment have evolved to reflect changing circumstances and new data over the course of the pandemic, the medical community is in strong agreement when it comes to what it will take to minimize illness in the coming year. In an open letter to Houstonians on August 20th, the CEOs of the Texas Medical Center, Memorial Hermann Health System, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston Methodist and Texas Children’s Hospital were united in their recommendation of vaccinations for all eligible individuals ages 12 and up and masking for all within schools, regardless of vaccination status, in order to promote a safer environment for our kids in school.
And as for those who are eligible but have not yet chosen to be vaccinated? The belligerent optimist in me remains, well, optimistic. At a recent vaccination drive at The Health Museum, I had a brief conversation with a woman who was getting in line for her shot. She’d been putting off getting the vaccination because of an intense fear of needles. She joked that she needed to distract herself so she wouldn’t leave before getting vaccinated. She got the shot.
At some point, this too shall pass. There will come a time when news feeds won’t be dominated by COVID-19 articles, when discussion about masks will involve Halloween costumes, when we won’t need to weigh the risks and benefits of in-person get togethers. How quickly and successfully we get to that point will be shaped by our collective response to the situation.
Becky Seabrook is the Senior Director of Guest Engagement at The Health Museum and a senior fellow in the American Leadership Forum – Gulf Coast.
Located in the Houston Museum District, The Health Museum’s mission is to empower healthier living through programs and exhibits like Parents, Let’s Talk Mental Health with The Menninger Clinic and Beautiful Minds: Dyslexia and the Creative Advantage. The museum is a Smithsonian Affiliate and member institution of the Texas Medical Center. For more information, visit thehealthmusuem.org.