by ALEXANDRA RETTER
With COVID vaccines recently authorized for children five to 11, local health and school leaders said that students getting vaccinated could help them not miss school or extracurricular activities and keep them safe while learning and playing.
The approval came as case rates and hospitalization rates surged this summer for five- to 11-year-olds and other age groups.
Winona Health Pediatrician Heather Burton said she and her colleagues have been anxiously awaiting the vaccine’s approval for some time. “I’m very excited and in full support of getting kids vaccinated if they’re old enough now,” she said. She is looking forward to the children of her family friends getting the vaccine, she said, and if she had children, she would have them vaccinated.
Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Superintendent Annette Freiheit said the vaccine approval expansion is good for those who choose to vaccinate their children. “I looked at it as a real benefit for our younger kids as we continue to work through the school year,” she said.
Galesville-Ettrick-Trempealeau School District (G-E-T) District Administrator Michele Butler wondered how the district could support making the vaccine available in the area when she heard the news. “I don’t believe it’s my job to force anyone to make that decision,” she said. “But I do want it available for those that are looking forward to it and wanting it for their child.”
Some local school leaders’ districts had different experiences with awaiting the vaccine approval expansion.
Butler said she is excited about the approval expansion, as many students who have missed school this year were absent due to needing to quarantine, and being vaccinated eliminates quarantining requirements. According to the CDC, those who are fully vaccinated do not need to quarantine if asymptomatic. “When you’re out of school for 14 days, that’s a lot of school,” Butler said. “Even though we’re doing our best to keep kids connected, we all know the whole virtual education process has not been highly effective for all students.”
WAPS’ mitigation strategies, including masking, are in place for those who are vaccinated and those who are not, Freiheit said, and will continue until community transmission is low enough to scale some back. Vaccinations being available for younger children will hopefully help speed up that process, she said, adding that it is valuable for adults to get vaccinated, too, to reduce community transmission.
The health and school leaders agreed the vaccine would positively impact the pandemic’s trajectory.
“I think the vaccine is really the biggest tool we have to help end the pandemic,” Burton said. Having as many members of the community vaccinated as possible is the best tool for returning to normal, she said, and getting younger children vaccinated is a big step toward that.
“The more people that get vaccinated, the greater immunity we have,” Winona County Health and Human Services COVID-19 Campaign Coordinator Valerie Williams said. “It should take down the transmission rates.”
They also agreed the vaccine would allow school and activities to look a little more normal. Vaccinations will help children safely attend school and do activities, Burton said. “Getting kids vaccinated is going to help protect kids and help keep them safe in bigger group settings,” she said, “especially as we get more immunity in the community.” Vaccinations will also help keep the number of children who need to quarantine down, Burton said. Freiheit agreed that vaccination would help reduce quarantine numbers and keep children learning and socializing at school.
The approval expansion could have broader impacts on reducing mitigation strategies, Butler said. Districts nationwide may change their mitigation strategies after the holidays, Butler said, with children who get vaccinated completing their full two doses by that time period. “Hopefully that comes with a lot less cases, period,” she said. The approval expansion may loosen masking requirements, as well, Butler said. “If we have more students that are vaccinated, that’ll make it a lot easier to not have face masks worn in school,” she said.
Williams agreed, noting that with low transmission levels, masks may not have to be worn at sports or arts performances, for example, and students won’t have to miss practices or rehearsals because of quarantining.
WAPS School Board member Jim Schul weighed in on vaccination and masking at the board’s November 4 meeting, as well, noting that with the approval expansion, he would like the board to discuss mitigation strategies, especially the district’s masking requirement.
The CDC recommends universal masking in schools, regardless of vaccination status.
The health and school leaders recognized that some parents and guardians may be hesitant about vaccinating their children. Burton said she would want families to know the vaccine is about 90 percent effective at preventing COVID among five to 11 year olds and greatly reduces hospitalization risk. It also provides extra protection for children who have already had COVID, she said. Scientists have done many studies of the vaccine and continue to study it, she added. All this testing is why the vaccine has not been approved until now, she said. To date, the studies have shown the vaccine is safe, she said, with mild side effects like pain at the vaccination site and low fever. Additionally, one cannot get COVID from the vaccine, Burton said. Getting vaccinated also protects children from facing long-term effects of COVID, she said. Overall, the benefits outweigh the side effects, she said. “There’s a much higher risk of complications from COVID infection itself,” she said. Those with questions are welcome to speak with their health care provider, she said.
Williams said children get a third of the adult dose, and there were no cases of heart inflammation in this age group during testing. Like Burton, she encouraged those with concerns to speak with their health care provider.
There are several ways to receive the vaccine locally. Vaccinations are available through WAPS and Winona County; see page 4B for details. “I love the idea we’re able to do it in our school buildings, because it keeps it in the neighborhoods,” Freiheit said. Those who walk to school can walk to the clinics, for instance.
Additionally, Winona Health is offering vaccinations Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at its vaccination clinic on the first floor of the Parkview Office Building.
For G-E-T, clinics in conjunction with the Trempealeau County Health Department will be open from 2 to 6 p.m. at G-E-T Middle School on Friday, November 12; Trempealeau Elementary School on Thursday, November 18; G-E-T Middle School on Friday, December 3; and at Trempealeau Elementary School on Thursday, December 9.
The clinics are open to anyone, from staff to students, families and community members, who would like to be vaccinated, Butler said, and are being held in conjunction with the area’s county health department.
Families may also schedule vaccinations with their health care providers.
Similarly to other COVID vaccinations, children five to 11 need two doses to be fully vaccinated and to be observed for 15 minutes after receiving the vaccination.