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Keeping Kids Safer During a Pandemic

Masks, Public Health, and Vaccination Update

Updated Nov 12, 2021

Since the school year began, parents across our region have been understandably anxious about their child’s risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the classroom. Positive cases in school communities are inevitable, but one trend we’re discovering may surprise you: Very, very few kids are actually getting COVID at school. Most cases among kids can be traced to a COVID-positive person in their household or to a social gathering they attended outside of school. In other words, what happens in our schools is a reflection of what happens in our communities. A child’s best chance of being protected against COVID-19 is to be surrounded at home by adults and teenagers who are fully vaccinated and who wear masks at any indoor social gatherings or public places where they can’t be sure if the people around them have
been vaccinated.

The Delta variant is incredibly contagious, and over the last few months, many of us have become more lax about wearing masks in public places and at social gatherings. Particularly among unvaccinated people, this has resulted in many more adults and kids getting infected. In addition to being a public health director, I am also a pediatric hospitalist. I worked a few overnight shifts this past month and saw several children admitted with COVID pneumonia – severe enough cases that these children needed to receive oxygen in a hospital. Nearly all kids who are hospitalized due to COVID do get better, but we didn’t really see cases like this before Delta. The vast majority of kids who get infected are still asymptomatic or have very mild cases, but these more severe cases have occurred more frequently during this Delta surge. 

During the month of September, we saw the highest rates of pediatric hospitalization since the beginning of this pandemic, but it’s still a fraction of adult hospitalization rates, and it’s happening most in states with very low vaccination rates. Today 75 percent of Virginia adults are fully vaccinated. As of press time In Richmond, 47.5 percent of all children ages twelve to seventeen are fully vaccinated, and in Henrico County, rates are higher, with 64.0 percent of kids twelve to seventeen fully vaccinated. As more people are vaccinated in our region, it will directly translate to fewer kids being hospitalized due to COVID-19. As cooler weather approaches and we’re all spending more time indoors, vaccination is the absolute best way to ensure we limit our kids’ exposure to the virus.  

As with adults in our region, there is also a significant racial disparity in vaccination among kids. Richmond and Henrico Health Districts estimate that white children ages twelve to seventeen are vaccinated at a rate two to three times higher than Black children in our region. This means that many Black children and their family members are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and may also transmit the virus to their vulnerable family members. 

Vaccinating Children Younger than Twelve

Pfizer submitted its data to the FDA and received approval on a vaccine for children ages five to eleven. The FDA’s advisory committee met at the end of October and approved the vaccine for this age group. Four of my five children are older than twelve and have already been vaccinated. Now that the scientists at the FDA and the CDC have confirmed that the vaccine is safe and effective in children under twelve, we will absolutely have our ten-year-old vaccinated. 

Learn more about COVID-19 vaccine clinics at local schools and sign up your five- to eleven-year-old child here.

At every step of this vaccine roll-out, we have looked to the experts to make recommendations based on science, and those recommendations have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. All of the available vaccines have been incredibly effective at preventing severe illness and death among fully vaccinated people and greatly lower our risk of infection even during the COVID surge brought on by the Delta variant. I know that serious consequences from COVID infection are extremely rare for a young, healthy child, but when the vaccine gets approved, I want to make sure my daughter is as protected as possible. It’s the best thing our family can do to help fight the pandemic. 

It’s my hope that we will see transmission rates continue to decline this fall, but it absolutely depends on more of us getting vaccinated, wearing masks in public places, and choosing to gather outdoors whenever possible. We know what we need to do to keep ourselves and each other safe, and if more of us get vaccinated, we can put this pandemic behind us and get closer to the kind of normal life so many of us were hoping for this fall. 

Photo: Kate Thompson

Danny Avula, MD, is director of the Richmond City and Henrico County Health Departments and was appointed state vaccination coordinator in January 2021. He is a public health physician who is board-certified in pediatrics and preventive medicine. Dr. Danny continues to practice clinically as a pediatric hospitalist. He lives in Church Hill with his wife and five children.
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