Schools could be restricted without vaccinations | Apache County

If children are not vaccinated against COVID-19 this month, schools will have limited options to prevent outbreaks in August when classes resume.

The state parliament has concluded its legislative period with a series of measures intended to prevent mask and vaccination obligations – especially in public schools.

The state health department says only 13% of Navajo County’s residents and 19% of Apache County’s residents under the age of 20 have been fully vaccinated to date. This corresponds to a national average of around 13%. So far, the federal government has approved vaccines for everyone aged 12 and over. Experts expect a vaccine for younger children to be approved soon.

Epidemiologists say the dramatic slowdown in vaccination rates for all ages in August could make outbreaks of COVID-19 possible as children return to face-to-face classes across the state. This is especially true given the continued proliferation of new varieties like the Delta strain, which has been found to be more likely to infect, hospital and kill children in India.

However, studies also show that even without vaccinating adolescents, masking and other measures this fall in schools that offered face-to-face classes prevented significant outbreaks. The US Centers for Disease Control guidelines suggest schools can be operated safely, especially when community transmission rates are low. However, schools have sometimes caused clusters of cases as well, mainly from exposures at large group activities such as sports tournaments and concerts, when most people were not wearing masks. (www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/science/science-briefs/transmission_k_12_schools.html).

The current COVID-19 vaccines have been approved for emergency use, which means schools cannot require children to get their vaccinations in order to participate as they have with other vaccines, including polio, measles, mumps and rubella . Many epidemiologists are calling on the Federal Food and Drug Administration to switch the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to normal use based on safety data received last year, which could potentially allow schools to require students to be vaccinated.

Lawmakers have taken several important steps to prevent K-12 schools and universities from requiring students to wear masks or vaccinations.

First of all, lawmakers flatly forbade school authorities to impose mask requirements on K-12, district and charter schools – at least for pupils.

Legislature has also passed a law stating that community colleges and universities cannot require COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of entry unless students are actually involved in research into the virus. Universities can’t even ask for COVID-19 tests unless there’s a “significant outbreak” in a dormitory.

The law also banned local governments from taking measures to slow the spread of the virus, such as masking requirements and vaccination passes, which would require proof of vaccination to attend events or enter shops. Individual companies can still request proof of vaccination.

The state government could still impose restrictions. Ironically, at the beginning of the pandemic, the state lifted many of its restrictions, but left it up to local city councils and school authorities to take action.

Legislators also passed law protecting business owners from “frivolous” lawsuits alleging the company exposed customers to illness during a pandemic emergency. This means that anyone who sues a company for being infected must provide “clear and compelling” evidence that the company did not act in good faith to protect employees or customers.

Experts say that once 70 to 90% of people are vaccinated, the virus will stop creating large clusters of new cases and can simply become extinct in any highly vaccinated population. But low vaccination rates among school children in the fall will potentially make schools more susceptible to outbreaks.

To date, only 17% of the Apache County’s population and 28% of the Navajo County’s population are fully vaccinated, according to the latest figures posted on the Arizona Department of Health’s website.

Studies have shown that the widespread use of masks in schools greatly reduces the risk of cases on campus, regardless of whether schools also practice social distancing, according to a study by Duke University researchers in schools in North Carolina. (https://today.duke.edu/2021/06/research-finds-masks-can-prevent-covid-19-transmission-schools). The researchers concluded that wearing masks on campus was effective in preventing the virus from spreading without the need for social distancing or distance learning.

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