WASHINGTON — Maryland schools are gearing up for potential Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds.
Mohammed Choudhury, Maryland state superintendent of schools, told Capital News Service in an email that the vaccine is the best defense against the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The expansion of vaccine administration to younger children will help prevent school outbreaks, reduce the numbers of students and staff in quarantine, and continue to keep students and staff in classrooms for full-time in-person learning,” he said.
“Baltimore County Public Schools will be thrilled when vaccines are authorized and available for all students,” spokesman Charles Herndon told CNS. “They are the best way of keeping children and staff in our schools safe and COVID free.”
Pfizer and BioNTech announced Sept. 20 that a smaller dose of their vaccine was safe and had “robust neutralizing antibody responses” among the 5- to 11-year-olds in their trial.
The FDA said Friday that it set a vaccines advisory committee for Oct. 26 in anticipation of Pfizer’s request for the vaccine’s authorization.
“We are eager to extend the protection afforded by the vaccine to this younger population, subject to regulatory authorization, especially as we track the spread of the Delta variant and the substantial threat it poses to children,” Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla, said in a statement.
The weekly rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 children and adolescents was nearly five times higher in mid-August than in late June, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Milagritos D. Tapia, a pediatrics professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said the vaccine “will decrease transmission in schools, and would … decrease the opportunity for children to become severely ill or experience the (after effects) of COVID infections, which do occur in children.”
The Maryland Health Department recognizes vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds “would be an important peace of mind for parents,” agency spokesman Andrew Owen said in an email to CNS. He added that the department is working with local jurisdictions and school systems to prepare for the vaccine’s approval.
Dana Smith, a parent of an 11-year-old student at Arbutus Middle School in Baltimore County, described the start of the school year as “nerve-wracking with the local positivity rate being up and the community spread bouncing between substantial and high,” she told CNS via Facebook Messenger.
Smith said her heart skips a beat each time the school sends COVID-19 case notifications because she wonders if the students who contracted the virus were in any of her son’s classes.
“We are looking forward to the vaccine being approved for kids, and I plan to have my son vaccinated as soon as possible,” she said.
COVID-19 last month hit elementary schools in the Baltimore County Public Schools system harder than the high schools and middle schools. Nearly half of the 240 positive cases it reported from Sept. 10 to Sept. 17 were from elementary schools, according to the school system.
Two weeks later, from Sept. 24 to Oct. 1, the reported positive cases in Baltimore County’s schools weren’t much better. Out of the 214 reported infections, 104 were from elementary schools.
The Baltimore County Public Schools system is the third largest in Maryland. Herndon said Baltimore County has a high level of COVID-19 community transmission under CDC criteria.
He said having the vaccine authorized for younger children would be a big step toward lowering the school system’s infection rates and making everyone safer.
Howard County Public School System Superintendent Dr. Michael Martirano said he’s a very strong proponent of younger students being vaccinated, citing their vulnerability to the virus.
To keep students and staff safe, the school system engages in constant communication encouraging vaccinations, he said.
“Keeping this in front of everybody is absolutely critical as we try to maintain the health and well being of our students and staff and keep schools open,” Martirano said. “That’s the main goal.”
The Howard County Health Department is working closely with county school officials to determine how to best provide COVID-19 vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds once authorization is given, Dr. Kelly Russo, the department’s medical director, said in an email.
School systems across Maryland are making similar preparations ahead of the FDA’s authorization.
The Anne Arundel County Public Schools system worked with the local health department during the summer to hold vaccination clinics for students and staff, spokesperson Bob Mosier said in an email.
Recently, they have been having conversations about the logistics of providing vaccination clinics if and when they become available for 5- to 11-year-olds, he said.
Frederick County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Theresa Alban said in an email that the school system and the local health department also are discussing options for offering vaccination clinics.
The Baltimore City Public Schools system told CNS in an email that once the vaccine is fully approved, it will continue its partnership with the local health department to ensure vaccines get to students.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told U.S. News & World Report that it “would be a game-changer” for elementary-aged students to be eligible for vaccinations.
The anticipated authorization of the vaccine for children comes amid a renewed push from some Maryland lawmakers to mandate vaccinations for public schools statewide.
“A requirement for students to be able to be vaccinated for Covid as they enter our schools is another tool we should be considering as a state,” state Sen. Clarence Lam, D-Howard and Baltimore counties, said in an interview with CNS.
Gov. Larry Hogan, R, rejected calls for implementing statewide mandates in a press conference on Sept. 30.
“Because we’ve done so many (vaccinations) we haven’t found the need for it,” he said.
California recently announced plans to institute a vaccine mandate in public schools once the FDA fully approves the vaccine for all school-age children, the first state in the country to do so.
Tapia said she recommends Maryland schools encourage families to vaccinate their 5- to 11-year-olds if the FDA authorizes the vaccine for them.
“I think that there will be concerns, just because there (are) always concerns,” Tapia said.
“But if they’re concerned, what they should be more concerned about is their risk of having an infection, and the outcomes of that infection for the child, rather than the risk of having side effects from the vaccines,” she said, referring to data from people aged 16-25 having worse reactions to COVID-19 than the vaccines.
“So it’s a safer bet to be vaccinated than to be infected with COVID,” Tapia said.
(Capital News Service Annapolis Bureau reporter Alex Argiris contributed to this story.)