New evidence on the ability of the Delta variant to infect and spread even among those who are fully vaccinated has been particularly alarming for parents of young children who are still ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Many parents who thought their children were at limited risk of contracting the coronavirus are now reassessing their position. Health experts have said parents should be very careful with the highly contagious variant, which is causing spikes in infection in Los Angeles County and many other parts of the country.
But several also stressed the importance of keeping risks in context, adding that children can always return to school with proper precautions.
Orange County pediatrician Dr Katherine Williamson said she has seen an increase in coronavirus cases in young patients in recent weeks, as well as an increase in the number of parents who are vaccinating eligible children – which she both attributed to the rise of the Delta Variant.
“Parents need to make sure that they are doing everything possible to keep their children safe when they have an unvaccinated child in their family,” Williamson said.
Yet the risk of serious illness remains low for those who are vaccinated against COVID-19, and the rate of infections, hospitalizations and death is much higher for those who have not received a vaccine.
With the right guidelines and an increase in vaccinations among eligible people, Williamson said, it’s still possible to protect young people.
“Children are as safe as their surroundings,” she said.
Although the Delta variant is already known to be more transmissible than the original coronavirus, a new report on an outbreak involving 469 people in Massachusetts found that 74% of infections were in fully vaccinated people. And a confidential report produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gathered other annoying signs that the variant is spreading more easily among fully vaccinated people than previously thought.
Children under 12 are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, and those 12 to 17 still lag behind when it comes to getting the vaccines.
The rise of the Delta variant has sparked a wave of changes in recent weeks, ranging from new testing and vaccination requirements for federal, municipal and state employees to the revival of previously abandoned mask guidelines.
West Hollywood resident Jonathan Strauss has two children aged 5 and 2 and said he was “very happy with the return of indoor mask requirements.”
The family recently encountered a vaccinated, unmasked man at an ice cream shop who told them he had no idea there was no vaccine available for children under 12 yet.
“My main thing to point out to others is that there are still many members of our community who cannot be vaccinated for reasons of age or health, and they can theoretically be infected by people who have been vaccinated.” , said Strauss, 41.
Despite the risk, he and his wife are hopeful that the increase in the number of cases in LA County won’t prevent schools from opening in the fall – as long as schools remain diligent about masking, testing and other security procedures.
The Los Angeles Unified School District announced on Thursday that all students and employees will be required to take weekly coronavirus tests, whether or not they are vaccinated.
Many health experts have said moving forward with plans to reopen schools still made sense.
“Children need to be in school,” said Julie Swann, health systems engineer at North Carolina State University. “Those of us who lived last year, we know that.”
Swann recently released a report which found that without a mask in schools, 70% more children could be infected with the coronavirus within three months. Her research also shows that even though the mask is mandatory in all schools, she still expects 40% of elementary students to be infected within three months.
Even with that knowledge, she said, schools are expected to reopen for the 2021-22 school year, with additional mitigation strategies in place.
“Schools, counties and states can also increase testing of their population and community, which will also help slow the spread of the disease,” she said.
As the Delta variant spreads, public health officials continue to closely monitor vaccination figures, which remain woefully low among young people.
“It is clear that vaccination rates among young people throughout LA County are much lower than those for the elderly, and with more opportunities to mix,” said the county public health director. from LA, Barbara Ferrer, at a press briefing Thursday.
The largest gap remains not only among young people but also among some young people of color.
According to data presented by Ferrer, only 24% of blacks and 33% of Latinos aged 12 to 15 had received at least one injection, compared to 50% of whites and 76% of Asians in this age group.
In total, about 50% of LA County teens aged 12 to 17 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, Ferrer said, compared to about 70% of county residents overall.
There are signs the coronavirus wave is leveling off, Ferrer said, noting that the test positivity rate is starting to stabilize. But the 5.17% positivity rate is still much higher than it was on June 15, when it was below 1%.
“We still have almost 4 million people across the county who are yet to be vaccinated,” Ferrer said. “This risk of further spread of this variant within our county remains high.”
Not all parents want to send their children back to school.
Deborah Poppink, 57, of Mar Vista, said one of her children prefers to learn at home, while the other is eager to return to acting class but is unsure how it will work with masks.
Poppink, who previously worked as a teacher at LAUSD, is also frustrated with the district’s new weekly testing mandate, which she says essentially requires vaccinated families to bear the brunt of the unvaccinated.
“If everyone was vaccinated [there] would not need weekly tests, ”she said. She also noted that there was still a lack of guidance on when and where testing will be done, and how school-related activities like carpooling, sports teams and parents visiting campuses will integrate.
“This is a public health crisis and I imagine it will get worse rather than better,” she said. “Children are not going to keep their masks on all day. Even in normal times, kids like to sneak into the bathroom to vape or just do what kids do.
Her daughter, Delilah, 16, said she was less worried about herself than about her comrades who were not vaccinated.
“There is no way of knowing who has been vaccinated,” she said, “so we have no way of protecting unvaccinated children.”
Pediatricians remain concerned about the spread of the Delta variant, Williamson noting that parents should avoid socializing with unvaccinated people, including family members, “because then they can take this virus home to their children.” .
Dr Gregory Poland, an immunologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said continued outbreaks are likely inevitable.
With unvaccinated children preparing to regroup again in classrooms and on buses, an increase in infections linked to the reopening of schools “cannot not happen, ”he said.
But most experts also agreed that a “safe and healthy” approach to COVID-19 protocols – with more adults doing their part to get vaccinated – should at least eliminate some of the risk.
“If you weigh the risks and the benefits… I think it’s worth sending kids to school as long as there are mitigation measures in place,” said Dr Eric Ball, pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County Primary Care Network.
Like Williamson, Ball has seen a slight increase in the number of coronavirus-positive patients in recent weeks, with the vast majority of infections in unvaccinated adolescents and children too young to be vaccinated. Cases present themselves in different ways, he said, from young children with cold-like symptoms to older children who become “quite sick”.
The feelings of fear and sadness he experienced over the past year have given way to frustration, he said, as adults could have done more to prevent the current wave.
He also said that most teachers and adults in schools should be vaccinated, and almost all middle and high school students now have the opportunity to be vaccinated.
“So that should really be our push at this point,” Ball said. “To make sure we vaccinate as many people as possible to protect children who are too young to be vaccinated.”
Times editor Melissa Healy contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.