Parents should have eligible children fully vaccinated by start of school, health experts say

This story appeared in MLive. Read more here.

In a month, most fall sports practices begin. A week or two later, some middle and high school students will strap on backpacks, board buses and return to classrooms.

If they want to stay among peers and teachers, it is best they do so fully immunized against COVID-19, a virus unlikely to disappear this fall and best controlled by immunization, health officials across the state unanimously said.

“There are going to be cases in the community, which means there will be cases in the schools and if your child is fully vaccinated, then that’s going to make it a whole lot easier for them to fully participate in all their school and extracurricular activities and social events,” said Dr. Joshua Meyerson, medical director for the Health Department of Northwest Michigan.

Children 12 and older are eligible for the two-dose Pfizer vaccine, credited for a steep decrease in new cases and now readily and abundantly available at pharmacies, doctor’s offices and health departments, often on every day of the week and at almost any time.

The doses are given three weeks apart a person is considered fully vaccinated two more weeks after the final shot. This means a child would need the vaccine five weeks before the start of the school year, which varies by district and region. Some begin before Labor Day. Gillian Conrad, communications manager for the Berrien County Health Department, recommends securing the initial dose by the end of July.

She called the COVID-19 vaccination “one of the most important back-to-school immunizations.”

The higher the percentage of vaccinated community members, including adolescents, the greater the protection from the virus, she said Monday.

Linda Vail, health officer in Ingham County, likened immunization to a moat surrounding a castle. A vaccine is unlikely to be approved for children younger than 12 in time to have them immunized by fall. It is up to older people to shield that vulnerable population, to create that barrier.

“More children vaccinated in a school setting will help with that level of transmission in a school,” said Lindsay Maunz, public information officer for the Allegan County Health Department in western Michigan.

“It will help with quarantines in schools, and just getting back to that level of normalcy that we are all looking for.”

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated guidance for schools, making it clear that a return to in-person instruction is a priority.

“Achieving high levels of COVID-19 vaccination among eligible students as well as teachers, staff, and household members is one of the most critical strategies to help schools safely resume full operations,” the centers reported.

About 62 percent of Michigan residents 16 and older are vaccinated. About 33 percent of those 12-19 have received at least one dose of the vaccine. (The U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded use of the Pfizer vaccine to children 12 to 15 in May. It was authorized for adults in December.)

Those who are “anti-COVID or anti-masking” are going to say the difference this year is unmasked athletes and fewer rules. “But no, no. It’s less rules because we have the vaccine. You know, actually the vaccine will be the liberating thing that gets you from everything,” said Dr. Mark Hamed, medical director for Huron, Lapeer, Sanilac, Tuscola, Alcona, Iosco, Ogemaw and Oscoda counties.

Also an emergency room physician, Hamed reminds people that the vaccine is a safe and highly effective. There is the perception the vaccines were rushed, but they underwent necessary checks, he said.

Flu vaccines have been about 40 to 60 percent effective, according to the CDC. Hamed notes the COVID-19 vaccines, even at their worst, are far better. The Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, when fully administered, have been found to be as high as 94 percent effective against COVID-19 hospitalization.

“This is a damn good vaccine,” Hamed said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC and other medical and public health groups recommend vaccination despite “extremally rare” cases of myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle, and pericarditis, inflammation of the tissue that forms a sac around the heart. Cases have been most common in boys or young men and occur most often after the second dose.

Most are mild requiring minimal, if any, treatment, according to the Academy of Pediatrics.

Dr. Bob Lorinser, medical director of the Marquette County Health Department in the Upper Peninsula, said chance of serious illness or death by COVID-19 is lower in children than in adults – the county hasn’t had any pediatric deaths – and the possibility of side effects has to be weighed. “In my mind, the risk of a vaccination should not exceed the benefit.”

If he had a son 12 or older, he would probably have him vaccinated, he said, but for a small group of people, such as boys who have previously tested positive for the virus or had mild myocarditis after a first shot, he might recommend only one dose.

“If you’re concerned then at least take one and we’ll see what happens,” said the doctor, who wanted to be clear that he is “very in favor” of the vaccines and advocates for full vaccination in almost all cases.

Conrad, of Berrien County, noted the most commonly reported side effect is “a sore arm.

Eric Miller, 47, was not worried about his 13-year-old son, eighth grader Easton Miller, undergoing his second shot at a vaccine clinic this month in Coldwater. “I think he is going to be good.”

Eric Miller, a factory supervisor, was already immunized, as were all other members of his large, blended family. It was encouraged at work, he said, and he asked Easton, regularly COVID-19 tested as a middle school wrestler, about whether he wanted the shot.

“Because I felt safer,” Easton said of the reason he agreed.

On a positive note: “I thought it was going to hurt worse,” the teen said.

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You’ve got questions. That’s a good thing.

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