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School division to offer summer COVID-19 vaccinations for students

As has been encouraged by the Virginia Department of Health and state Department of Education, Suffolk Public Schools will be providing an opportunity for students ages 12 and older to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, but not before this summer.

School officials confirmed at a school board meeting May 13 that it is planning, with the city’s health department and a pharmacy, to vaccinate students — and their parents — sometime this summer, likely in July.

The federal Food and Drug Administration gave emergency use authorization on May 10 for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to be given to children who are at least 12 years old. On May 12, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices affirmed the FDA’s recommendation, and shortly after that, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adopted the advisory committee’s recommendation.

In a May 13 briefing, state vaccine coordinator Dr. Danny Avula said adolescents should be vaccinated despite the prevailing thought by some that young people who get COVID-19 are either asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms.

Avula said, however, that young people have been shown to drive the spread of the disease in some areas. And he said that while rare, some kids get hospitalized with COVID-19, and among them, there are about 3,000 documented cases of multi-inflammatory syndrome.

“There are serious things that we want to protect against,” Avula said. “So there’s an individual benefit. There’s also, clearly, a community benefit, because as adolescents are vaccinated, it decreases the ability for them to contract COVID and to spread COVID.”

He said there are other, practical benefits to young people getting vaccinated. For one, fully vaccinated people do not have to quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19, and they do not have to be out of school or miss sporting events for seven to 14 days.

“I hope that our communities will see that, will be encouraged by that,” Avula said, “and that students and their families really do take the step to get vaccinated for themselves and for their communities.”

Though students will be able to get vaccinated at pharmacies, through health departments or at community vaccination clinics, he is hopeful that local school divisions will partner in the effort to vaccinate adolescents.

“We know that working through schools is our most effective way to get information out and to really get access to this segment of our community,” Avula said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. James Lane said he has heard excitement for the opportunity from many superintendents around the state — one of those being Suffolk Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III.

“We actually showed interest in trying to be one of the pilots,” Gordon said, “but you also had to check on availability. Now that the shot is available for students as low as 12, we’re probably going to have that available in our schools, probably King’s Fork High School, because it’s a central location. We’re circling July. We want to be able to try and offer it in the summer.”

The division would offer first and second doses three weeks apart, as is required with the Pfizer vaccine.

However, Gordon also said students need to remember some of the new vaccinations as well as their normal shots. More information on those can be found on the division’s website at http://bit.ly/SPSvaccinations.

Avula said guidance from the advisory committee states that COVID-19 vaccines can be given along with other vaccines.

“The only caveat, really, is that private providers should think about, what are the other vaccines that need to be administered based on where they are in their schedule,” Avula said.

He also added that in the advisory committee’s guidance, there was a notation around considerations of the reactogenicity of a vaccine.

“Meaning, every time a child or anybody gets vaccinated, what’s happening is you’re eliciting a response from your immune system,” Avula said. “You’re revving up your immune system to create antibodies to protect against an intruder.

“That happens to varying degrees with varying vaccines, and so if there are a number of vaccines that a child needs that are considered reactogenic, the provider may make a decision to say, ‘Hey, let’s space this out a bit.’”

Chief Administrative Officer Dr. Suzanne Rice said the division would be partnering with the city’s health department and a local pharmacy and set up vaccinations for students ages 12 and older. Specific dates and times will be announced at a later date.

Lane said parents would have to give permission for their children to be vaccinated but would not necessarily have to be present when their child receives the vaccination, though Avula said it would be a good opportunity to get more adults vaccinated.

“Obviously, getting our students vaccinated like we got our teachers vaccinated is an important step to getting back to the five-days-a-week, everyday open school situation that we all know will happen in the fall of this year,” Lane said.

Students, while not required to get vaccinated, will be encouraged to do so. Any mandate to be vaccinated would need to come from the General Assembly, Lane said.

“There are no specific requirements that anyone get vaccinated,” Lane said, “but our schools are going to do a great job of explaining the benefits of vaccinations and providing opportunities for families to do so.”

Lane said who administers the vaccine to students would depend on the locality, but most likely it would be people that have been approved as vaccinators through their local department of health. He said some school divisions might opt to not hold a school-based clinic because there are sufficient places to get vaccinated in those particular areas.

Avula said about 2,000 people ages 12 to 15 participated in Pfizer trials. Of the roughly 970 people in a placebo group, 16 were confirmed to have had COVID-19. However, in the vaccine group of just over 1,000 people, there were no COVID-19 cases, so Pfizer reported 100% efficacy with that age group.

With 12- to 15-year-olds now able to get vaccinated, another 420,000 people in the state will be eligible to get a vaccine.

And while the division will be encouraging eligible students to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, it also wants to make sure they receive their other required immunizations.

“The availability in the doctor’s office is going to be key,” Gordon said, “because that’s the feedback that we’ve gotten from parents (that) the opportunity to make an appointment is so far down the road, so you’re going to begin to see us really push, ‘Hey, get your vaccinations. I’m not just talking about COVID. Get your shots done. Get everything that has to happen to successfully enroll your child in Suffolk.’”