Masks required in schools this fall, with vaccines for younger children not likely until winter

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Masks will be required for students, teachers and staff regardless of vaccination status in Washington state schools this fall.

While it’s possible that these recommendations could change, that doesn’t seem likely as the delta variant surges in the state and children under 12 remain ineligible to get vaccinated.

The Department of Health released updated guidance for schools on Wednesday, which includes the masking requirement indoors (but not outdoors), distancing of 3 feet between desks and additional recommendations for ventilation and cleaning.

The school mask guidance is “so critical because we know it’s important to protect our young ones,” State Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah told reporters Wednesday.

State health officials are encouraging families to get kids and teens who are eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to get the shots ahead of the school year to keep transmission as low as possible.

Currently, kids and teens who are eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine represent the least vaccinated age group in the state.

As of July 26, about 42% of kids ages 12 to 15 in Washington have received at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, and nearly 50% of 16 and 17-year-olds in the state have received at least one dose. It’s the only coronavirus vaccine currently approved for use in that age group.

Dr. Michael Barsotti, an administrator at Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital, said he believes vaccination rates are low in this age group because parents are trying to weigh the potential side effects or consequences of vaccines for their children versus the likely mild course of illness younger people tend to have if they get the virus.

The problem with not vaccinating children and teens, however, even if they end up being asymptomatic, is that they can pass the virus on to adults and immunocompromised people who might be less protected even with the vaccine. The delta variant is far more transmissible than older strains of the virus, and it has led to a surge in cases and, in some states, hospitalizations.

Barsotti said kids are at risk for getting multi-inflammatory syndrome, as well as long COVID, meaning they get symptoms like a cough or chronic fatigue that won’t go away, as is seen in some adult cases of COVID-19.

“Vaccines are what get us back to school faster and safely,” Barsotti said Wednesday. “(Vaccination) helps us protect the most vulnerable; if kids can be carriers of the virus and not get super sick, we don’t want them to get older people sick, so it’s important we’re all a part of the solution.”

He emphasized that the vaccines are safe for kids and teens.

Health officials hope that, as kids return to their doctors before school starts, more of those who are 12 and older will get vaccinated against the virus.

Kids under 12 years old will likely not be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine until later in the winter or next year, officials and experts say.

Both Moderna and Pfizer have trials underway to test the dosage and efficacy of the vaccines in children and babies as young as six months old, but those trials are not scheduled to be completed until early 2022 or later.

Barsotti said there’s discussion nationally about whether the vaccine will be approved for emergency use in children by winter or whether it will instead be submitted for full approval a bit later.

“For children less than 12, probably not until the middle of winter will you see vaccines for them,” Barsotti said.

State health officials agree. Gov. Jay Inslee said the federal government has not provided a timeline on vaccine approval for younger kids but indicated that it will be months, not weeks, until that happens.

Getting vaccines to younger children will be crucial to actually reaching herd immunity in the coming year, Barsotti said, noting that estimates range from 75% to 90% of the population reaching immunity through infection or vaccination before herd immunity is achieved.

“If you don’t do children, you’ll never reach those statistical values,” he said.

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Spokesman-Review reporter Laurel Demkovich contributed to this report.

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