COVID-19 Watchdog

School kids to face higher COVID-19 risk, despite vaccine access

Many school districts are removing the protection that masks have provided as hospitals raise red flags and local and state leaders decline to intervene.

Only two Kalamazoo County school districts will keep masks on when students return to school in January, local health and school officials said, as defenses for kids drop just as potential pandemic risks build up.

Kalamazoo County’s top health official projected the rates of vaccination against COVID-19 will be lower than adults which “doesn’t get us to the level of immunity that we would like.” The vaccine has been available for all school-aged kids since early November. No schools will require vaccines.

Meanwhile, Kalamazoo hospital systems are sounding the alarm over a surge in coronavirus cases, warning of a shortage of capacity to treat the community. And, the World Health Association said some mutations of a new variant of the virus are “concerning” because of the growth rate of infections and risks of reinfection, which could further endanger lives and the health care system. 

Research has proven both masks and vaccines to be effective in reducing the spread of the virus, and health officials recommend masking as a preventative measure regardless of vaccine status – even with all school-aged children eligible for a dose now – due to COVID caseloads and hospitalizations reaching a level not seen since last year.

But 20 months into the global pandemic, the science that underpins successful mitigation techniques still competes with politics and misinformation to inform health and safety policy. 

County and statewide infection rates are hitting new records, though death rates aren’t trending as high. In all categories, victims remain mostly unvaccinated. Death rates from COVID-19 are at a low 1.8% statewide, but Michigan still leads the nation in new cases per day

“There’s a strong likelihood we will see a high level, a continued level of transmission,” said Kalamazoo County Health Officer Jim Rutherford, especially after the Thanksgiving and upcoming winter break filled with indoor gatherings. “I hope we see a plateau or an apex. I hope we see downward trending.”

Vaccine ≠ Mask

When vaccines were approved for ages 5 and up by the federal Food and Drug Administration and recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in early November, the Kalamazoo County Health Department rescinded an Aug. 18 order for students to be masked in school. 

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It takes effect Dec. 17 after the final bell rings on the last day before winter break. Now, initial doses are available to the vast majority of the population and booster shots to most adults.

“My objective [in August] was to protect a population that did not have access to a vaccine,” Rutherford said. 

In effect, the mask order provided the opportunity for vaccination rates to reach a critical point – but was not based on that critical point being reached. And it’s the vaccination rate, not vaccine availability, that provides the chance for so-called herd immunity.

“I don’t anticipate we’re going to get as high as we have with adults. I would be satisfied if we were able to reach 50 percent. It certainly doesn’t get us to the level of immunity that we would like,” Rutherford said. “From a scientific standpoint, what has always been bounced around is 70 percent herd immunity. People need to remember even having gotten vaccinated you may get a breakthrough case, but the likelihood of going to the ER or worse is much less.” 

Rutherford said as of mid-November, “a little over about 50 percent” of 12 and older students are vaccinated and around 15 percent of 5-to-11-year-olds. 

Other than convincing parents that the vaccine is safe and outweighs any risk posed by the virus, there may not be much else that can be done to boost those rates. There’s virtually no way to require kids get the vaccine. 

“Politically that would a pretty hard sell,” Rutherford said. “[There are] death threats for mask mandates; I can’t imagine what it would be for vaccine mandates.”

While a federal mandate is being challenged in court, institutions can implement one. Bronson Hospital, for example, has said any worker that isn’t vaccinated by Jan. 15 will be out of a job. Nearly 90 percent of its workers have been vaccinated, a spokesperson said. Borgess Hospital declined to provide worker vaccination details.

Without that protection from widespread vaccination, mitigation still heavily rests on more tried-and-true methods such as social distancing and masking. (Officials tout quick turnaround home testing to better identify asymptomatic infections and reduce exposure, though test kit supplies are limited and expensive.) 

“We still have a lot of unvaccinated youths in schools,” Rutherford said. “They may be wearing masks in schools, but they may not be. I’ve had a lot of issues with parents not putting masks on their students. If the kids are wearing their masks correctly, then they’re effective. I’ve got some schools doing a better job than others.”

In early January, when students and staff return from time typically spent gathering indoors in groups – two things that are known to spread COVID – only Kalamazoo and Comstock public schools will keep people in masks regardless of vaccination status. 

“We are going to stay the course,” said Jeff Thoenes, Comstock Public Schools superintendent, though he didn’t give a timeframe for reevaluating the decision.

Kalamazoo Public Schools has committed to a mask mandate at least through its second trimester, which ends March 11. 

Every school district has also been meeting to talk through health protocols with their boards as well as with health officials, Rutherford said. The dozen school districts within the county will each decide their own policies.

“We respect the right of every student and family to choose masking and vaccinations, and this will again be a family decision,” said Rick Frens, Schoolcraft Community Schools superintendent. 

“We anticipate we will recommend but not require, just like we did before the mandate,” said Heather Weschler, the spokesperson for Climax-Scotts Community Schools.

Leadership and consequences

Both school and health officials have faced vicious campaigns by individuals and organizations that range from general vaccine opposition to unfounded legal claims to physical threats.

Rutherford said the state should have taken the lead and the heat off of local officials.

“I think it would have been more advantageous for the governor to take a stance instead of 42 different counties. I point to Lansing and say that’s poor leadership that you’re leaving this local,” he said. “It should have been a statewide mandate.” 

Regardless, COVID-19 and the response to it once again threatens the basic operations of the health care system.

Rutherford said the county health department needs more nurses and other technical staff to manage the day-to-day operations in addition to the pandemic – an issue facing the industry at large.

On Nov. 18, Bronson Hospital spokesperson Carolyn Wyllie said the strain on the system hasn’t been this bad since last November. And of the 103 COVID cases in its hospital system on that day, 73 were not vaccinated. Borgess Hospital declined to provide similar details on how its system is faring, though state data dashboards show bed usage rates are on par with levels at Bronson.

Five days after Wyllie spoke to NowKalamazoo, Bronson announced it elevated its “surge status,” a benchmark based on data that determines how it will allocate its resources.

“Bronson healthcare facilities are consistently at capacity and resources are limited,” Bronson said in a statement. In response, it will deprioritize “less critical services” such as anything unrelated to the pandemic or other emergencies, and existing staff will be reallocated to care for a growing population of COVID-19 patients in their beds.

The Kalamazoo-based 5th District Medical Response Coalition, a nine-county cohort of emergency response, hospital, and health officials, issued a Nov. 23 warning of the health system’s looming inability to provide timely response to victims of car accidents, heart attacks and strokes, and seasonal illnesses like influenza.

“Our individual and collective resources are being overwhelmed, and we need our communities’ help to get back on track,” the Coalition said.

All recommendations from those local experts are the same: social distance, mask, get vaccinated.

“I see people are pretty much done” with the pandemic, Rutherford said, “but I’m telling you it’s not done with us.”

Ben Lando contributed to this story.

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