What's The State Of Vaccines For Children In NC?
One-fifth of North Carolinians have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but there's only one vaccine that currently has emergency use authorization for people under 18.
The Pfizer vaccine is approved for anyone 16 or older, and has promising clinical data for people between the ages of 12 and 15.
At the monthly state Board of Education meeting, leaders from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said Pfizer is hopeful that within weeks, the FDA will approve emergency authorization of their vaccine in children 12 and older.
If the Pfizer vaccine gets approved, that could be good news for increasing the number of students in buildings come fall.
Moderna is conducting trials on its vaccine for children and, health leaders say, is also hopeful for federal approval so that people as young as 12 could be vaccinated safely with the shot this summer.
That means North Carolinians in middle and high school could be vaccinated before the upcoming 2021-22 academic year.
Pfizer and Moderna began clinical trials for people between six months old and 11 years old in March, and if things go well, it may be possible to vaccinate younger children sometime in the 2021-22 school year.
Johnson & Johnson has also begun including people between 12-17 years old in their vaccine studies.
But the state is not only relying on vaccines to determine whether to safely bring more students back to school this fall. New federal funding has state leaders anticipating a major expansion of the current in-school COVID-19 testing program.
"Federal funding as part of the [American] Rescue Plan has been made available for states, upon application, specifically to facilitate end-to-end screening testing in K-12 schools," Dr. Aditi Mallick, director of NCDHHS' COVID-19 operations center, said.
Currently, school districts can get free tests and support from the state health department, but those tests only go so far.
They can use the tests for occasional school-wide screenings (like after holidays), weekly screening testing of teachers, and testing older students and athletes. On top of that, they can do diagnostic testing, which means testing anyone who is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 or had close contact with someone who tests positive.
The state began with a pilot program in some districts, then in March allowed any district to join. This new expansion — pending approval from the federal government — is supposed to allow every district to conduct frequent screening tests.
But some districts have already found their own ways to ramp up screening testing. Like Durham Public Schools, which partnered with a health provider to give tests to anyone in the school, even parents, who want a free COVID-19 test.
According to state health leaders, national studies show that screening testing can limit the number of COVID-19 cases in schools by 50%. It also speeds up the quarantine process and makes people feel safer about getting back in school buildings.
The state health department has recently lifted requirements that schools take temperature checks and conduct a questionnaire screening of students before they're allowed in the classroom, citing evidence that these measures don't do much to protect people from the virus.
They've also eased social distancing requirements in schools, in accordance with new guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which means students can be within three feet of each other as opposed to the previous six-feet requirement.
Still, schools are supposed to keep up safety protocols that state and federal health leaders say actually work, like wearing a mask at all times, keeping as much social distance as possible, and limiting the number of older students in buildings when three feet of space can't be kept.