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The Editorial Board: Covid's new targets are unvaccinated children

The Editorial Board: Covid's new targets are unvaccinated children

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'Strong' start to kids vaccine campaign, but challenges loom

Children's vaccinations have begun well here and in other places around the country. Above, a nurse in Seattle gives a Pfizer shot to 7-year-old Emmy Slonecker last week. Infections among unvaccinated children are rising in Erie County.

So, now it’s the kids. As a fourth wave of Covid-19 infections sweeps through Western New York, bloating hospitals nearly to capacity, unvaccinated children under 18 are disproportionately represented.

Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County’s health commissioner, said that while 45% of children under 18 remain unvaccinated, they account for 85% of Covid-19 cases within that age group. They are at heightened risk, but they don’t have to be.

Vaccinations are more broadly available today than since they were first approved in December. Late last month, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was given emergency authorization for use in children 5-11, for whom trials demonstrated the shots to be 90.7% effective.

As research showed effectiveness of the vaccines began to wear off after several months, booster shots were authorized for all previously approved vaccines – including those manufactured by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. There is no shortage of supplies and, with cases rising, both New York State and Erie County are encouraging anyone who is time-eligible to have a booster, regardless of age. Such is the level of worry. Time eligibility is two months after the single Johnson & Johnson shot or six months after the second dose of either of the others.

It’s challenging for many people to keep up with changes in science and recommendations, partly because the science advances but also because the virus mutates. It can do that because too few people are vaccinated.

One change is in the risk to children. While young people were once seen as far less likely to be infected, that is no longer the case. Data released last week showed 25.6% of newly confirmed infections in Erie County were among people ages 18 and under. That’s 690 of 2,690 cases – an increase of 180 cases among children in just one week. What is more, the data clearly suggest that the vast majority of those cases are among unvaccinated children.

Even schools, which have been comparatively safe spaces during the pandemic, are seeing increases in infections. While child vaccinations appear to be largely welcomed by parents here, infections in county schools rose 32% between Oct. 23 and 30.

That’s not surprising, as an expert from the University at Buffalo observed. Not only do children account for the highest share of unvaccinated people, said Dr. Steven E. Lipshultz, but the more infectious Delta variant of the virus remains dominant. Children now have targets painted on their backs.

And while Lipshultz, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at UB’s medical school, agreed that children remain less likely to become seriously ill, severe infections are nonetheless possible.

“Children in general are less affected than adults but it’s still a serious disease,” he said. “We’ve had cases in our intensive care unit of hospitalized children. Although most will be fine and do not need hospitalization, they can be harmed. It can spread to others. Long Covid can be a continuing problem.”

There’s a bottom line to all of this: Not enough people are vaccinated, and, because of them, Covid-19 is still a threat, here and in most other places around the country. The proof can be seen not only in rising infection rates and hospital admissions, but in the example of another country, one that has done much better than the United States in taming the virus.

As The New York Times reported last month, there is almost no one left to vaccinate in Portugal. Even though the pandemic once threatened its health care system with collapse and its vaccine program was ineffective, that country is now a world leader in containing the pandemic.

It accomplished that feat by assigning the immunization project to a military leader who was focused on keeping politics out of the effort. As as result of his success, new cases and deaths have fallen dramatically. The country also dropped many Covid restrictions, though as cases rise in Europe, the country may reinstate some.

Keeping politics out of the work is easier said than done in this country, which is infected not only with the novel coronavirus, but with a reckless brand of politics and misinformation, driven by the likes of Fox News commentators, social media and individuals who think freedom comes without responsibility.

It’s good news that many parents have been eager to vaccinate their children, but with infection rates rising, it’s plain that not enough have been immunized – and not enough adults, either. Unless that changes quickly, conditions will soon become worse, as cooler temperatures push people indoors, where the virus more easily spreads.

The shots are easy to come by. They are safe and effective and they point to the day when we can all breathe easier. There is no reason for most people to avoid them and every reason to want them – if not for themselves and their communities, then for their children. If that’s not enough, then we are in a very dark place.

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