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Ohio Doctors Want Eligible Kids To Be Vaccinated As COVID-19 Cases Rise

Ohio health officials are encouraging parents to get their eligible children vaccinated as COVID-19 continues to spike across the state, chief medical officer Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff said in a news conference Wednesday, July 21, 2021. [Ohio Department of Health]
Ohio health officials are encouraging parents to get their eligible children vaccinated as COVID-19 continues to spike across the state, chief medical officer Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff said in a news conference Wednesday, July 21, 2021. [Ohio Department of Health]

Updated: 2:52 p.m., Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Ohio’s COVID-19 cases are sharply climbing, and with the increased spread of the more contagious delta variant in the state, the state’s top doctor says Ohioans have two choices at this point in the pandemic.

“Either you get vaccinated, or you are going to get COVID-19,” Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, chief medical officer of the Ohio Department of Health (ODH), said in a press briefing Wednesday.

In that briefing, medical professionals urged Ohioans of all ages to get vaccinated as a defense against the variant, including eligible children. The Pfizer vaccine is approved for kids aged 12 and up.

Ohio’s case rate per 100,000 residents jumped from a low of 17.6 on July 7 to 37.8 this week, Vanderhoff said. On Tuesday, the state reported 744 new cases – its highest daily case count since May.

Hospitalizations also went from 200 on July 9 to 348 July 20, according to ODH data, a 74 percent increase.

Health officials anticipated another spike in cases during the summer due to the delta variant, which has caused surging cases and hospitalizations in other states like Missouri and Texas and worldwide, Vanderhoff said.

The delta variant accounted for 36 percent of Ohio’s COVID-19 samples sequenced in the week ending July 3, and is expected to be even more present in more recent sample sets, Vanderhoff said.

Delta is becoming the predominant variant in the state, he added.

Dr. Amy Edwards, medical director of pediatric infection control at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, said Wednesday vaccination rates must increase for Ohio to stay on top of the spike.

“If you look even in states and countries where the vaccination rate is in the 70 and plus percent, this variant is so contagious that it’s finding all those little pockets of tiny unvaccinated groups and it’s making them sick. We have much bigger pockets than some of those other places,” Edwards said. “There’s no doubt about it: now that the delta variant is here, you will get sick from COVID.”

All three COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized appear to protect well against the variant, she added.

Health officials are particularly concerned about rising cases and hospitalization rates for younger age groups.

From May to June, 20 percent of cases were reported in people aged 20 and younger, Vanderhoff said. From October to December, just 12 percent of Ohio’s cases were in that age group.

Edwards said there is a misconception that COVID-19 does not affect children as much because older adults, on average, tend to have worse outcomes. But many children have been hospitalized with COVID-19 and even died, she said.

“If you look at the numbers, like the hospitalization rates, the school absenteeism from being sick with COVID and even the mortality from COVID in children, it’s about as bad as our worse flu season,” Edwards said. “So if you think about our worst pediatric flu seasons that make the news… that’s basically what COVID is. But it doesn’t stop when flu season stops. It’s been going all year.”

There are other risks for children as well, Edwards said, such as MIS-C, a rare inflammatory illness reported in some children and teens after developing COVID-19.

Just like other viruses, the coronavirus mutates and changes over time, becoming more contagious and potentially deadlier. The delta variant is 60 percent more contagious than the alpha variant, also known as B.1.1.7, and may cause more severe illness, Vanderhoff said.

Because of that, health officials are strongly encouraging both adults and eligible children to get vaccinated before worse variants begin to circulate.

“I feel, truthfully, we are one variant away from this being worse for kids,” said Dr. Patty Manning-Courtney, chief of staff at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “Is that what we’re going to do? We’re going to wait until it is worse for kids, and then we might take it seriously and get vaccinated?”

The Pfizer vaccine, which has been authorized for children aged 12 and up, is safe and highly effective in children, Manning-Courtney and Edwards said. The vaccines from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are authorized for individuals 18 and up.

So far, side effects from the vaccine – such as fatigue and arm soreness – seem to be milder for children than adults, Manning-Courtney said.

Edwards added while it may appear that the vaccines were developed quickly, the mRNA technology used in the shots from Pfizer and Moderna has been in development and heavily studied for years.

Vanderhoff emphasized that no corners were cut for any of the vaccines.

"Instead of months-long waiting periods between phases when paperwork could be prepared, the process moved. All the normal safety steps were taken in developing these vaccines," he said.

State health officials are putting together guidance for K-12 schools about masking, social distancing and other COVID-19 safety measures ahead of the new academic year. But health organizations have differing thoughts about universal masking in schools.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently recommended all students wear masks, regardless of whether they are fully vaccinated. Edwards, who is an AAP fellow, said she agrees with that guidance.

Vanderhoff said state health officials will evaluate all of the current guidance and make a recommendation to Ohio schools, but it will be up to individual school districts to make the final decision about safety measures to implement.

"We're actively looking very thoughtfully at recent guidance that came from the American Academy of Pediatrics just 48 hours ago, input from various stakeholders and guidance from the CDC," he said.

In Northeast Ohio, some school districts have already made decisions about mask requirements for the fall 2021 semester. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District will require all students and staff to wear masks for at least the first five weeks of the school year regardless of vaccination status, while Parma City Schools will not require masks for anyone.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.