ATLANTA — When Atlanta metro area school districts reopen in early August, most students will not be required to wear masks to combat the spread of COVID-19. And that has pediatricians worried.
In a letter last Tuesday to school superintendents, the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, representing more than 1,800 Georgia pediatricians, urged mandatory masks for all students older than 2 and all school staff, regardless of their vaccination status. The letter reaffirmed guidance released a day earlier by the national American Academy of Pediatrics.
While school districts fretted last year that teachers would contract COVID-19 since evidence suggested children were not as susceptible, students are now the focus. Vaccines are now available to protect teachers and older students, but there is no approved immunization yet for children under 12, who represent close to half the U.S. school-age population. (Children's vaccines trials are underway.)
The delta variant, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says accounts for an estimated 83.2% of recent COVID-19 cases, is far more transmissible than the original virus. It still appears the risk to kids from infections is low, but it's not zero, as tragically shown by the recent death of 5-year-old Wyatt Gibson of Gordon County, Georgia. And the virus still poses greater danger to children with certain health conditions, including Type 1 diabetes, obesity, cardiac and circulatory congenital anomalies and epilepsy and/or convulsions.
Health professionals are warning that ignoring the ongoing threat from COVID-19 and the rise of infections among younger, unvaccinated people could lead to many more cases and overrun hospitals. With a 40% full vaccination rate, Georgia lags the national average of nearly 49%.
Consider that in Arkansas, a state with a very low vaccination rate and now a soaring COVID infection rate, there are almost as many Arkansans infected with COVID-19 who are 17 or younger as people 65 and older, according to the chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
"These variants are smarter. They're dangerous," said Dr. Michelle Nichols, associate dean of family medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine, at a panel Thursday on COVID-19 prevention on the campus. "They're more infectious."
"We are in a race against the variants," said Dr. Lilly Immergluck, a pediatrician and Morehouse professor of immunology, on the same panel. "What we know about coronaviruses in general is that they do mutate. It's almost like the survival of the fittest. The virus adapts to the environment, to who remains vulnerable."
That is becoming young people.
Adults must get vaccinated to protect children "so we don't see the unfortunate stories that we have right now of children under 6 years old dying," said Nichols. "That is very unfortunate for something that is completely preventable."