This post was originally published on St. Louis American

By Sylvester Brown Jr.

Sandeep Rohatgi, MD, a Washington University pediatrician with more than 25 years experience, is urging parents to get their children vaccinated – especially with schools opening as Missouri experiences surging COVID-19 cases.

“Vaccinating our children who are 12 and older can keep them, our families and our friends safe. Reducing the number of COVID-19 cases can keep our economy and our country moving and get us all back to doing what we love,” he shared in a commentary to the St. Louis American.

“We are close to a point where we can start to think about going back to more freedoms and normal social interactions for everyone.” 

It’s debatable how close anything resembling “normal” is, and that includes in the nation’s classrooms. Two months ago, optimism was high and there was a sense of achievement as the number of coronavirus cases seemed to be in decline.

In mid-May, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) announced that most fully vaccinated people didn’t have to wear masks indoors or outdoors. In early July it said that vaccinated teachers and students would not need to wear masks inside school buildings.

High hopes were dashed following reports of the Delta virus variant.  Nationwide, cases and hospitalizations started increasing. Health officials attributed the upticks in coronavirus cases in states like Missouri, to the pockets of the population with low vaccination rates.

“The constant barrage of new knowledge and recommendations was dizzying and overwhelming at times,” Rohatgi wrote.

What seemed like flip-flopping by the CDC was actually the organization responding to science and increased coronavirus infections, President Joe Biden explained in a recent press conference.

Students return to classes on August 23 and 24 in St. Louis and St. Louis county, respectively. The highly contagious Delta variant has ripped through conservative areas in Missouri, including Branson and Springfield, and is spreading into the city and county. The alarming trend has local health officials worried about the impact on school-aged children.

“When you look at what’s happening across the state; hospitals in Springfield are seeing more hospitalizations among youth infected with the virus,” said Dr. Frederick Echols, acting director for the St. Louis Department of Health.

“The CDC as well is showing there are increased transmissions among the younger populations. And, in the city of St. Louis, we’re seeing increased transmissions among youth.

“The evidence is definitely there, so we have to do our very best to not only create safe spaces for our youth but make sure we maintain that over a period of time. We have to be mindful of those who are under the age of 12 who are ineligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.”

And therein lies the rub. According to a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey of American adults who have not yet received a vaccine, 35% say they probably will not, and 45% say they “definitely will not get vaccinated.”

How will public health and school officials get children vaccinated when some of their parents refuse vaccinations or won’t even mask up? Only about half of middle school students are eligible for vaccinations. Middle schoolers in the 11-to-14-year-old range are not? Who will be responsible for knowing which students are vaccinated? Will vaccination cards be required? How will “vaccine hesitant” parents be persuaded to vaccinate their kids?

Both the city and county health departments are providing information and a bevy of vaccination sites to make it more convenient for parents to get children vaccinated.

Valerie Nelson, director of clinical services with St. Louis County Department of Public Health, said the county has a “robust program to immunize and vaccinate children.” 

“The concerns that the medical and public health communities have around the risk of the Delta variant around school-aged kids does make us all feel that there’s that much more haste to try to reach the community.”

The county health department has already kicked off a pro-immunization campaign at its three clinics (two in North County and one in South County) that works in conjunction with normal back-to-school immunization programs. Parents can go to any of the free clinics where nurses and practitioners will answer questions and encourage families to have their eligible school-age students COVID vaccinated along with other necessary vaccinations. Parents, guardians or whoever brings a child in for innoculations will be encouraged to get vaccinated also, Nelson said. 

In response to the rise and spread of the Delta variant, the city and county recently mandated face-coverings in indoor public places. That includes public schools.

“We know that individuals who have received the COVID-19 vaccine can still be exposed to the virus, get infected and potentially spread it to others,” Echols explained. “We’re doing our very best to protect the health and well-being of not only the students but the staff as well.”

As students return to classrooms with unanswered concerns, there is currently no requirement for vaccination cards. No public school school district in Missouri has mandated vaccinations for school-aged children. Accurate information, strategic cajoling and easy access to vaccinations seem to be the route public health officials are recommending at this time.

Dr. Rohatgi recognizes that families must make tough decisions about vaccinating their children. He strongly advises parents who are considering the shot to discuss their concerns with “trusted medical advisors.” Rohatgi expressed pride in how communities have come together to combat the pandemic.  But he warns, the fight is far from over.

“We are almost there — let’s keep taking the steps to end this. All our actions will impact what happens next.”