In the U.S., over 17,000 children have been hospitalized, over 4,000 have suffered from Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome and more than 400 have died due to COVID-19. Vaccines — our most effective tool — aim to protect vaccinated individuals but also those who cannot be vaccinated, including children under the age of 12. This works by building a “wall” of immunized individuals around these groups — what we call herd immunity.
So far, we have failed.
At the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, we continuously review data on COVID-19 and incorporate that data into projections and policy advice. Recent data on the Delta variant is alarming. The virus in this form is twice as infectious. Multiple studies show that while vaccines protect against severe disease, protection against infection from the Delta variant may wane within months.
Viral loads are similar in vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals infected with Delta, suggesting that a vaccinated person who is infected can just as easily infect others. The Delta variant also leads to higher rates of hospitalization.
In Seattle and across the country, we are at risk of failing our children again if we don’t properly account for the Delta variant. In less than two weeks, Seattle Public School students will return to schools with full classrooms and unmasked mealtimes, primarily indoors. In justifying this approach, the district points to the “absence of widespread outbreaks” in schools when children returned in May.
The situation is dramatically different now.
From May to June, children attended only mornings or afternoons, and some remained in full-time remote learning. There were no mealtimes. Small cohorts of children were kept separate. Most important, less transmissible variants were circulating at much lower rates.
Today, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in King County are increasing to levels seen only this past winter. The 3 feet of physical distancing recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which SPS is following “to the extent possible,” is an outdated standard based on less transmissible variants.
Contact tracing, testing and quarantine will be less effective, as evidenced by Australia where this strategy worked against earlier variants but failed to control the Delta variant outbreak. The mandate for vaccination for school employees announced Wednesday by Gov. Jay Inslee will help but it will be at least six weeks — well after the start of the school year — for it to be fully effective.
Infections will still be introduced into the school population through unvaccinated contacts of children, and breakthrough infections are on the rise given waning protection, a concern among school employees who were prioritized for vaccination earlier.
Seattle-area employers have adapted plans, delaying office returns and tightening requirements such as vaccination and testing. For our children, we are going in the opposite direction and relaxing measures in schools.
Early data from other states where schools have started in-person indicate this is a mistake. In Scottsdale Unified School District in Arizona, there was more COVID transmission in the first seven days this year than the entire previous school year. Outbreaks have already closed at least four school districts in Texas.
In-person school is critical for children’s development and health, but in the face of the Delta variant we need more mitigation measures, not fewer. In addition to universal mask mandates and vaccine mandates for school employees, these include reduced classroom sizes, strict physical distancing greater than 3 feet, cohorts to limit spread, better mealtime protocols (small groups only and outdoor covered meal areas), and routine testing of students and school employees.
Some families will understandably not accept the risk to their children, particularly with vaccines for those under age 12 likely available in just a few months. What options are there for them?
Seattle Public Schools has canceled the remote-learning option for grades 6-12, which is problematic for sixth graders not old enough to be vaccinated. The remote learning option for K-5 is targeted for children with health issues and requires them to un-enroll from their current school, breaking important relationships. It also requires enrollment for the full school year, preventing children from returning in-person once they are vaccinated.
These requirements push families toward in-person school or toward home schooling. The former is unethical and arguably negligent. The latter is only realistic for a lucky few. Instead of this punitive option, Seattle Public Schools must offer a remote-learning option for all children through their current school which allows a return to in-person schooling. This has the added benefit of reducing the number of children in-person, further reducing risk.
As a community, we have failed to achieve the necessary levels of vaccination to protect our children. The approach for the coming Seattle Public School year risks failing them again. We must put in place stricter measures to combat the Delta variant, including providing families with real remote-learning options before children under 12 can be vaccinated.