By Dr. César Morales, Ventura County Superintendent of Schools
After a lengthy and thorough review and testing process, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is now available for children as young as five years old. Whether you plan to be among the first to get your kids vaccinated or still have reservations, there are some important things to know about this latest tool in the battle against the coronavirus and what it means for Ventura County schools.
The FDA has now determined the vaccine is safe and effective for children ages five to 11. The agency says the vaccine is 90.7% effective at preventing COVID-19 in that age group. They also found zero serious side effects in their study of 3,100 five to 11-year-olds who received the vaccine. The risks of children suffering negative consequences from contracting COVID-19 are more significant than any risks associated with the vaccine. While children who get COVID-19 have less severe symptoms than adults, the CDC says the disease has killed nearly 700 people under 18 in the US, including 146 between the ages five and 11.
The return to in-person learning since the new school year began has been remarkably smooth in Ventura County and California as a whole. COVID-19 school closures are much less common in California than in other parts of the country. And California’s children are hospitalized due to COVID-19 at less than a fourth the rate in states like Florida and half the national rate. This is thanks to adherence to public safety measures like indoor masking and our relatively high rate of vaccination. Statewide, 59% of 12 to 17-year-olds are fully vaccinated, and in Ventura County, it’s a bit higher at 60.9%.
Vaccination reduces the chances that students will miss school due to illness or quarantine and helps protect family members who can’t be vaccinated or face a higher risk of complications from the virus. This is especially important as we head into the holiday season, when kids are more likely to be spending time indoors with grandparents and other extended family members.
I know many parents have questions about the state’s plans to require students to be vaccinated to attend school. The state does intend to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required school vaccinations, but it’s not going to happen for a while. First, the vaccine needs to be fully approved for children by the FDA. For now, full approval has only been granted for people 16 and up. The vaccine is available to younger kids under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization process with full approval likely sometime next year.
If all goes as expected at the federal level, the state anticipates the vaccination requirement will go into effect for students in grades 7 to 12 in July of 2022 and even later than that for students in kindergarten through 6th grade. State officials are still figuring out to what extent exemptions will be allowed.
I feel it’s important to remind everyone that your local school districts aren’t the ones making the rules about student vaccinations. The vaccine requirements come from the state, and all public and private schools in California are obligated to follow them. Local school boards do not have the authority to override the student vaccine mandate. Concerns about the mandate are best directed to the Governor’s office.
We’re truly fortunate that vaccines to protect us from COVID-19 are now available, and I encourage everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated. Since the vaccine for younger children is given at a lower dose than the adult version, providers can’t simply use the supply they already have on hand. In the coming days and weeks, we expect the new doses for five to 11-year-olds to become widely available from pediatricians, pharmacies and public clinics. You can find the latest information about getting vaccinated in Ventura County at www.venturacountyrecovers.org.
This column was published in the Ventura County Star on November 7, 2021