School Shots: New academic year heightens need for COVID-19 vaccination

HARLINGEN – With school districts preparing for in-person instruction this year, vaccination against COVID-19 now has a new urgency.

“Now is the time for students and their parents to really get serious about getting vaccinated,” said Dr. Christopher Romero, medical director of PanAmerican Clinical Research in Brownsville.

Pfizer has been granted Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration to administer its COVID-19 vaccination to those ages 12 and older. The next step is to gain the same authorization for children age 11 and younger.

Teachers, administrators, parents and eligible children should move quick to get the shot before the first day of school, said Romero, who is also an internal medicine physician at Valley Baptist Medical Center-Harlingen.

“They’ve got time to receive both doses of the Pfizer vaccine and have a week or so to build immunity before school kicks back in,” Romero said.

The Harlingen school district will begin the 2021-22 school year Aug. 16.

Last year, campuses were closed in March. The district and school board held several emergency sessions, some lasting well into the late hours, as they developed a system for online learning. Many students spent the year logging in to online classes from home.

As schools gradually reopened some classes, strict protocols such as social distancing were put in place.

Harlingen school district officials are still ironing out the safety protocols for this coming school year, said Joseph Villarreal, assistant superintendent for secondary education at HCISD.

“A lot of the protocols are mandated by the State of Texas,” Villarreal said. “For example, the masks. We can only encourage the wearing of masks, and so we have to abide by that mandate.”

Villarreal was referring to a mandate from Gov. Greg Abbott that schools can no longer mandate the wearing of masks.

“There are some practices we will continue with,” Villarreal said. “For example, we’re trying to work on the social distancing to the greatest extent possible. We’re hoping to release something by the end of July.”

As for remote learning, the Texas legislature has not approved funding for that option. Villarreal said the legislature is still in session so the matter may be addressed again. If the legislature does approve funding, the Harlingen school district will determine the best course of action.

Remote learning did provide school children vital access during the pandemic, but its effectiveness has been limited.

Harlingen Superintendent Alicia Noyola welcomed the return of in-class instruction this year.

“Face-to-face instruction is such a critical piece because I think nothing replaces the impact of a teacher,” Noyola said. “As much effort and work that went into remote instruction to create the very best environment for children, nothing quite replaces the impact a teacher has on a day-to-day basis.”

With kids and teachers returning physically to school, vaccination is a crucial piece of the new puzzle. Romero emphasized again that importance and addressed people’s concerns about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.

“The Pfizer vaccine is currently available for school-age children,” Romero said. “It has an excellent safety profile. It’s constantly being monitored, and it’s extremely effective at protecting against symptomatic COVID-19. It’s effective at reducing the risk of spread to others and reducing the risk of developing severe disease.”

As with all vaccines, the COVID-19 vaccines have drawn scrutiny over safety issues. There were some initial concerns about inflammation around the heart. However, the FDA has done a thorough review and found the vaccines are safe.

What’s not safe is going unvaccinated, according to Romero.

“Of the roughly 18,000 people in our country that passed away from COVID last month, 99 percent of those were unvaccinated,” Romero said. “Those are preventable deaths. And every one of those families that lost someone or has someone with long-term side effects from COVID – it’s unfortunate and sad.”

He referred to an article that just came out in a major publication about the multi-system inflammatory syndrome found in COVID patients.

“It looked at over 500 patients who were hospitalized with COVID in 2020,” Romero said. “Over 40 percent of them actually had demonstration of cardiac injury from the infection and their response to it. So the risk of having severe side effects from the infection itself is very real even in young healthy people. I think we have to weight those risks with the benefits of vaccination.”

Of even greater concern is the long-hauler syndrome in some young adult COVID-19 patients. Those long-hauler symptoms include long-term respiratory issues and problems with persistent fatigue.

“You’re talking about prime of life for a lot of people who are suffering from long-hauler syndrome,” Romero said. “The average age for long haulers is people in their 40s. You can see how this could be a significant impact for a country full of people in the prime of their lives having these major side effects from the infection.”

And it’s not only the adults.

“There’s a growing body of evidence that the long-haulers phenomenon has been identified more and more in the pediatric population,” he said. “Those long-term side effects of COVID can be seen even in our kids. If we have the ability to protect them with safe and effective vaccines, I’d encourage people to take advantage of that.”

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