KANSAS CITY, Mo. — With COVID-19 surging again in the Midwest and driving up hospitalizations in the Kansas City area, the advice from doctors across the Kansas City region for keeping kids safe, healthy and in classrooms remains the same.
Vaccinations and masks remain the best tools for combatting the virus, according to the city’s health leaders.
“One of the most important things that we can do to protect kids from COVID-19 is to get people vaccinated who are able to get vaccinated,” Dr. Jennifer Schuster, a pediatric infectious specialist at Children’s Mercy Hospital, said. “This means teachers, school staff, parents, older siblings — everybody vaccinated for COVID-19 who’s eligible. We call this cocooning. By getting everybody vaccinated around those young children, that helps keep those young children safe until they are eligible to get vaccinated.”
Kansas City’s vaccination rate — less than 46% overall, nearly 52% of adults and roughly 27% of 12 to 17-year-olds — continues to lag well behind the national average, especially on the Missouri side of the state line, according to the Mid-American Regional Council Kansas City Region COVID-19 Data Hub.
Why are masks necessary?
Coupled with the fact that it takes five to six weeks for the most effective vaccines, the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna offerings, to provide full immunity, decreasing vaccine hesitancy and increasing vaccine initiation alone won’t be sufficient to reduce community transmission before school begins across Kansas City later this month.
“It would be great if we could get everybody vaccinated overnight, but even that would take four weeks, four to six weeks ... before it reaches full effectiveness,” AdventHealth Shawnee Mission Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lisa Hayes said.
That’s why mandatory masking is critical to keep kids safe again during the school year, according to chief medical officers from the region’s largest health-care systems.
“We know that at least a third of infections can be prevented, just by masking ...,” Dr. Jennifer Schrimsher, an infectious disease specialist at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, said. “I like to say masks work; this is not debatable. There's numerous studies that prove this. But from our perspective, we've had no known cases of patient-to-staff transmission in our hospital despite taking care of COVID patients.”
Hayes said behind vaccination, universal masking is far and away the best strategy to control the spread of COVID-19.
“There is only one mitigation strategy that we're aware of that we know will work and can work, because masking clearly works,” she said. “We've bent the curve by that before (and) we can bend the curve again, but we need your help in getting us there and we need everybody to try to wear a mask.”
Need real-world proof masks work? Doctors say to talk to any surgeon or nurse who wears one every day — as has been the standard in medical practices for decades upon decades — or examine the 2020-21 flu season, which was virtually nonexistent amid widespread mask mandates.
The latest surge in COVID-19 cases isn’t hard to explain, according to doctors, given the end of mask mandates in May coupled with the delta variant’s emergence during the next two months.
Even if a district doesn’t require a face covering, pediatric doctors suggest that children would benefit from masking up in schools.
“We know that masks do their best work when they allow you to keep your droplets to yourself, but we’ve also learned throughout the course of the pandemic that masks also provide some layer of protection, too,” Schuster said. “I do think there’s absolutely value in wearing a mask, even when there’s not a mask mandate in the school.”
Is the vaccine safe for kids?
Children’s Mercy reported a record 19 hospitalized COVID-19 patients Friday morning, including seven in the hospital’s ICU, according to Director for Emergency Preparedness Dr. Jennifer Watts.
That mirrors the rising rate of hospitalizations across the Kansas City region.
Schuster said she understands why parents might be hesitant to get an eligible 12- to 17-year-old child vaccinated, but she stressed that the vaccines are safe for kids and preferable to an active COVID-19 infection.
“These vaccines have been tested in thousands of children who are 12 years and older (and) ... tens of thousands more have received them and received them safely,” Schuster said. “These vaccines are actually among the most tested and studied vaccines that we’ve had, because of the pandemic. They’ve been tested widely in multiple children across the United States and across the world. From my perspective the vaccines are safe. What isn’t safe is getting COVID-19.”
She said she’s aware of the cases of myocarditis and pericarditis reported after some adolescents received the Pfizer vaccine, but stressed that the rates are exceptionally low. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it’s about 67 instances per 1 million doses given, or 0.0067%.
“We know that heart inflammation after getting a COVID-19 infection or after getting multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children, the COVID inflammatory disease, the rates of inflammation after that are much higher,” Schuster said. “The other thing that we know is that heart inflammation after the COVID-19 vaccine goes away relatively quickly and children do fine.”
She also pointed out that doctors are on the lookout for it in children, but the bottom line remains that the virus is far more dangerous than the vaccine.
“The rates of heart inflammation, heart problems, hospitalization and other things after getting COVID-19 are higher than the rates of heart inflammation after COVID-19 vaccination,” Schuster said.