Who Are We Protecting
Over the past year and a half, I have continued to ask myself the same question, who are we protecting? At the beginning of the 20-21 school year the answer to that question would have been school staff members and the loved ones of Peoria’s K thru 12 students. However, any discussion pertaining to COVID-19 safety measures in our schools would and should be very different today than just one year ago. Last October, we did not have a vaccine, last October we did not know what influence the influenza virus would have on our hospitals or ICU capacity. But we are not living in the year 2020, we do have an effective vaccine and influenza was practically non-existent last season (or just never tested). So, what does that mean for today? Who are we protecting with widespread quarantines based on extensive contact tracing measures?
When I reflect on past studies that examined COVID-19 transmission rates among school aged children, I am immediately reminded of a Journal of Pediatrics study published just eight months ago. With a sample size of 90,000 students and staff across 11 school districts, Zimmerman et al. (2021) reported ZERO cases of child-to-adult COVID-19 transmission. A similar study published by Otte im Kampe et al. (2020) found similar results of low COVID-19 transmission rates among German schools. Some may argue that children are testing positive for COVID at higher rates today than they were last year. While that is true, it does not acknowledge the multiple studies that continue to show that children are contracting COVID at home, not at school and they do not transmit the virus at a rate even close to that of adults. Our pediatric hospital may be close to capacity, but has anyone bothered to ask hospital workers what they are seeing among their young patients? Over the past few months, the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) has surged among pediatric patients with a reported 66% admission rate among patients who tested positive for RSV (Agha & Avner, 2021). RSV is far more problematic among the young and its annual presence is nothing new or surprising. So where were these widespread preventative viral transmission safety measures to protect the children during previous years?
Since neither our school districts nor the Arizona County Health Department seem to show much concern over the spread of viral infections that pose much more health concerns among the young, the answer to my original question must be the protection of school staff and those who we love at home. Of course, when one examines available data that compare hospitalization rates among vaccinated and unvaccinated, it remains unclear why a school district would opt to keep their students out of the classroom when their staff have access to the COVID-19 vaccine. The New York Times recently estimated that an individual who is unvaccinated is 47x more likely to be hospitalized and 73x more likely to die from a COVID-19 infection in the state of AZ when compared to an individual who is vaccinated (See the data, 2021). Teachers fought to become categorized as essential workers and were included in category 1b of the AZ vaccine distribution order, just behind healthcare workers. So, what is the problem?
One thing I know, is that current student quarantine measures have had devastating effects on AZ student performance and will likely contribute to drastic rises in suicide and long-term struggles with mental health among our children. As I prepare for my Applied Research Project (ARP) to obtain a doctorate in health sciences, I have spent the last 10 weeks researching the negative effects quarantine have on the mental health of our children. Suicide ideation, self-harm, anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation were documented in over 20 peer reviewed studies across the world in the past year alone.
The renowned economist, historian and author, Thomas Sowell believes there are no solutions, only tradeoffs. Is the attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19 within schools worth the tradeoff of academic decline among our youth; is the reduction of COVID-19 transmission rates among students worth their long-term mental health? So, I ask our public health leaders, our local school boards, and administrators, can any of you honestly look these kids in the eye and tell them their mental and social wealth being, their happiness, their future is worth less than the mere 2.5% hospital rate among those under the age of 24?
For me the answer is simple. Schools are not protecting children, they are not protecting their teachers or loved ones; the only ones who are ACTUALLY being protected are the districts themselves. Just ask the Deer Valley Superintendent who recently admitted through email that the districts are being advised by their lawyers, not the CDC or county health department.
Agha, R., & Avner, J. R. (2021). Delayed seasonal RSV surge observed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pediatrics, 148(3). https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2021-052089
The New York Times. (2021, August 10). See the data on breakthrough Covid hospitalizations and deaths by State. The New York Times. Retrieved October 3, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/08/10/us/covid-breakthrough-infections-vaccines.html.
Otte im Kampe, E., Lehfeld, A.-S., Buda, S., Buchholz, U., & Haas, W. (2020). Surveillance of covid-19 school outbreaks, Germany, March to August 2020. Eurosurveillance, 25(38). https://doi.org/10.2807/1560-7917.es.2020.25.38.2001645
Zimmerman, K. O., Akinboyo, I. C., Brookhart, M. A., Boutzoukas, A. E., McGann, K. A., Smith, M. J., Maradiaga Panayotti, G., Armstrong, S. C., Bristow, H., Parker, D., Zadrozny, S., Weber, D. J., & Benjamin, D. K. (2021). Incidence and secondary transmission of sars-cov-2 infections in schools. Pediatrics, 147(4), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2020-048090