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Return to school and rising infections propel US child vaccine campaign

US health officials are campaigning to vaccinate more children as coronavirus threatens to disrupt the autumn return to classrooms after a school year scarred by the pandemic.

Doctors across the country are seeing increasing numbers of children in hospital due to Covid-19. Many say that adolescents, like adults infected by the highly transmissible Delta variant, are presenting symptoms sooner compared to previous stages of the pandemic. Officials are urging jabs for eligible children to slow down the contagion.

Parents and teachers are gearing up for a mass resumption of in-person teaching next month after many youth logged on to virtual classes at least part of the time in the last school year.

“We’re doubling down to get more students vaccinated as they return to school,” Miguel Cardona, US education secretary, told reporters last week. He called vaccination the “strongest tool to combat the virus and get students back into the classrooms, on sports fields, in school plays and among their peers this fall”.

Younger patients are getting their symptoms at a faster pace and they’re getting sick earlier than the original strain

Among other efforts, the Biden administration has enlisted popular TikTok users to encourage youth vaccine uptake, with the influencer Benny Drama appearing in a video alongside White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday.

Just 31 per cent of 12 to 15 year olds have been fully vaccinated, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures, while 42 per cent of 16 and 17 year olds have been double-jabbed compared to half of the US adult population.

In the first week of August an average of 216 children were hospitalised each day due to Covid-19 in the US, according to the CDC, a tally that comes close to daily admissions of children at the peak in January. Doctors say the majority of adolescent patients being hospitalised, like adults, are unvaccinated.

Dr Inci Yildirim, paediatric infectious diseases specialist at Yale Medicine, has been seeing more youth patients over the past month. “We do see that these younger patients are getting their symptoms at a faster pace and they’re getting sick earlier than the original strain,” she said.

The US is ahead of other countries in vaccinating its children. France’s campaign to vaccinate secondary school pupils will begin after the summer holidays, President Emmanuel Macron confirmed on Wednesday, saying that “we will be living with the virus for several more months”. The UK decided last week to extend its vaccine programme to 16 and 17 year olds but is awaiting further data before including younger age groups.

Younger children are still ineligible for vaccines. Children 12 years of age and older are eligible for the BioNTech/Pfizer jab in the US, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are available for people older than 18. All three vaccines are in trials for use with younger children.

Bar chart of % vaccinated by age group showing Children are the least vaccinated in the US

While US universities were among the first institutions to mandate vaccination for staff and students, schools have been slower to follow suit but the push to vaccinate children has taken on fresh urgency this month as parents prepare for the return to schools.

Dr Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, this week supported a vaccine mandate for teachers, a view echoed by the head of the American Federation of Teachers, a labour union with more than 1.7m members. 

“Vaccines are the single most important way of dealing with Covid,” Randi Weingarten, president of AFT, told NBC News television, adding that “we need to be working with our employers, not opposing them, on vaccine mandates”.

On Wednesday California became the first US state to require all school staff be vaccinated or tested for Covid-19 at least once a week.

Some schools that opened classroom doors this month are already suffering a surge in Covid-19 cases. In Georgia, the Newton County school district imposed a temporary mask mandate only a week into the new school year. 

“In only five days of school, we’ve had over 80 confirmed positive cases of student infection, and over 200 students have been sent home to quarantine,” said Samantha Fuhrey, the county school superintendent. “We tried the mask-optional status, but now must revert to requiring mask usage due to the considerable spike in cases.”

The district had experienced fewer than 20 cases a week in the second term of the 2020/21 school year, Fuhrey said, adding that less than a third of the population of Newton County has been fully vaccinated.

The CDC recommends that all people ages two and up wear masks in schools to curtail the virus, regardless of their vaccination status, and that children should return to full-time classroom learning in August and September.

Yet as the US vaccine rollout has become deeply politicised, so has the question of whether children should wear masks. School officials in some Republican-led states including Florida and Texas are fighting with lawmakers who have banned mask mandates. Florida governor Ron DeSantis has said that parents should decide for their own children.

“From a public health standpoint, that is a nightmare,” said Dr Archana Chatterjee, dean of Chicago Medical School and a member of the Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory committee.

Teachers and protesters outside a meeting where the Broward County, Florida school board was to discuss a possible mask mandate © AP

This week DeSantis went further and threatened to withhold salaries from board members or superintendents at schools that defy him by carrying out compulsory mask rules.

Biden said that government officials who threaten teachers against asking about a child’s vaccine status or telling them to wear a mask are “totally counter-intuitive and quite frankly disingenuous”.

In an attempt to boost vaccine rates, pop-up clinics are appearing on school grounds in states including Vermont and New Jersey to give staff and students a convenient place to get jabs. New York City has run temporary clinics in summer schools, while Maryland launched a child-targeted “Don’t Wait, Vaccinate” advertising campaign.

Yildirim said that many children are guaranteed lunch and feel safer in schools, aside from getting a better education. “We had a test run last year before the vaccines,” she said, “[and] we all agree that in-person education is important.”

Additional reporting by Anna Gross in Paris

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