In a press conference on July 21, officials with the Oklahoma City-County Health Department reported a 98 percent increase in COVID cases in Oklahoma County over a 7 day period. Dr. Patrick McGough, executive director of OCCHD, called children under 12 the “most vulnerable” in our community because they’re currently unable to be vaccinated against COVID.
“We still have 300,000 people in our county who are not vaccinated, and that’s enough to give traction to transmission dynamics,” said Phil Maytubby, COO of OCCHD. “As far as herd immunity, we’re not there yet. Hospitalizations are starting to rise. The only way we are going to stop this is to try to get people vaccinated.”
Maytubby cited that about 25 percent of the population in Oklahoma County are kids, a large percentage of them still unable to be vaccinated, and their best defense against contracting COVID and the potential long-term effects is their parents, guardians and adults around them getting the vaccine. Maytubby added that about 98 percent of those currently hospitalized with COVID in Oklahoma are unvaccinated.
As cases in Oklahoma County rise and the start of school draws near, we asked pediatrician Dr. Jason Onarecker with SSM Health some of parents’ most pressing questions about keeping their kids safe this school year.
- Both nationwide and in Oklahoma, kids are behind on childhood immunizations — what are the biggest concerns about that trend?
Childhood immunization rates were decreasing even before the impact of COVID, and now millions of children have missed over a year of visits to their pediatrician. The concern is that we will begin to see more frequent and larger outbreaks of things like measles and mumps that are usually well-controlled but just waiting for an opportunity to spread through communities. The extra protections resulting from COVID era masking, social distancing, and limited social engagement will only provide a false sense of security and delay the inevitable outbreaks that come from lower immunization rates. As the battle against the pandemic marches onward, it is easy to forget that staying healthy includes so much more than just avoiding COVID.
- For kids who have or will be getting COVID vaccines, does that vaccine need to be spaced out from other childhood immunizations?
The CDC has formally stated that it is OK to get the COVID vaccine at the same time as other vaccinations. Protection from the COVID vaccine and the chance of experiencing some side effects is not affected by whether or not you received another vaccine in the same time period. During the earlier stages of COVID vaccines, it was recommended to space out other vaccinations by 14 days, but as more information was collected it was determined that is not necessary.
- What do parents need to know about the new strains of the virus? How are these variants affecting kids?
The Delta variant is more contagious and poses a more serious risk for those who are not vaccinated, but it does not seem to cause worse disease. Children are making up a much larger proportion of new COVID cases, but this seems to be due mostly to lower rates of COVID vaccinations as those under 12 years old are still ineligible. Delta and concern for variants has been stirring up new controversy regarding the safest ways to open schools back up this fall while prioritizing in-person classes.
- As kids go back to school this fall and masks cannot be mandated in the classroom due to SB 658 (unless a state of emergency is declared by Gov. Stitt), what protocols should parents follow to keep kids as safe as possible from COVID-19?
The best strategy for protecting children age 12 and older is to get them vaccinated. At this point there should be little to no waiting period and getting scheduled is fairly simple. Fortunately for those under 12 years old who are not currently eligible for vaccination, younger children are very low risk for catching COVID and even lower risk for getting severely ill. Parents can take steps to limit risks even further by teaching children good hygiene practices: hand-washing, not sharing food or drinks, not touching the face, which surfaces are the dirtiest, etc. Although masks are not being broadly mandated, most schools are opting to follow CDC recommendations, which include masks when indoors for those above age 2 and not vaccinated, at least 3 feet of distancing, decreasing class sizes for unvaccinated age groups and strict policies of quarantining and testing for exposures and symptoms. Some institutions are requiring their staff to get vaccinated. Contact your school to find out the policies they will put in place to keep your child safe.
- Is my child wearing a mask enough to protect them even if others around them are not, particularly if that child is unvaccinated?
Vaccination offers substantial protection, and the CDC has advised that masks are not needed when the individuals present are fully vaccinated. When interacting with unvaccinated children, any mask-wearing is likely better than none. Encouraging your child to wear one properly may provide some extra protection and peace of mind, although transmission can still happen even when precautions are taken. In general, young children are very low risk for transmitting COVID.
- What extra precautions should I take for my immunocompromised child?
Children with compromised immune systems fall into a unique category. Overall, they are still at a much lower risk for contracting COVID than adults, but the potential for severe illness is likely greater than it is for children with fully functioning immune systems. To make matters worse, depending on the particular medical condition, COVID vaccines may not be as effective for the immunocompromised. Parents should keep in mind the generally recommended precautions for preventing the spread of the virus and be extra diligent about good hygiene. When anticipating summer travel or higher risk exposures to large crowds of people, it may be wise to discuss with a physician possible temporary medication adjustments that could allow for increased immune function during those times.
- Do vaccinated individuals need to start taking other precautions again?
More contagious variants are becoming much more prevalent and case numbers are now rapidly increasing again. The vaccines offer a tremendous amount of protection but still they are not perfect, and there have been reported breakthrough cases of deaths and hospitalizations in fully vaccinated people. The smartest thing to do is recognize high-risk situations and continue taking steps to avoid them or take as many precautions as reasonably possible. This means try to avoid events that are indoors, crowded or have an unknown mixture of unvaccinated people. It is probably time to reconsider that big summer party you had planned until COVID calms down again.
- If a vaccinated parent or older sibling is exposed to COVID-19, can they in turn expose an unvaccinated child?
The most common way for children to contract COVID is through their sick parents, but vaccinated parents pose only a minimal risk to their unvaccinated children even when exposed. One of the most persuasive arguments for parents who are still undecided about the vaccine is the safety it can provide for family members too young to be vaccinated.
- When do you expect COVID-19 vaccines for kids under 12 to become available?
Pfizer and Moderna have already begun working toward getting emergency use authorization to younger ages for their vaccines. Pfizer has projected approval for early winter.
Jason Onarecker, MD, pediatrics, graduated with honors from Oral Roberts University with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering. He then pursued a medical degree at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, where he also completed his residency. He cares for patients from birth to 18 years across a variety of non-emergency primary care needs, including well-child checks with immunizations, sports physicals, treatment of acute symptoms, ongoing treatment of chronic concerns and more. Dr. Onarecker is located in Edmond off I-35 and E. Covell. Dr. Onarecker’s office can be reached at 405-772-4130 or via ssmhealth.com/JasonOnareckerMD.
Local and national resources:
- For a current look at the COVID numbers and vaccination rates in Oklahoma County, visit the Oklahoma City-County Health Department’s COVID dashboard.
- To learn more about COVID vaccines available including common side effects, visit occhd.org/covid-19vaccine.
- To schedule a vaccine appointment, visit vaxokc.com.
- For current CDC recommendations on the best ways to protect your family, visit cdc.gov.
- Find current back-to-school recommendations and guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics and from the CDC.