Utah pediatricians: Younger kids, unvaccinated teens still need masks when school begins this fall

Utah pediatricians say cases involving the Delta variant of the coronavirus will likely spread through classrooms.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Allison Price, 15, receives the Pfizer vaccine as 12- to 15-year-olds were vaccinated against COVID-19 at the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Utah pediatricians are urging Utah parents to vaccinate eligible children before they return to school.

With teen vaccination rates below 40%, younger kids still ineligible for COVID-19 shots, and schools banned by the Legislature from requiring masks, Utah pediatricians say the coming fall could bring another surge of cases as the Delta variant of the coronavirus will likely spread through classrooms.

“I think it’s really concerning, especially when we have a vulnerable population under 12 that can’t be vaccinated,” Dr. Tim Duffy, a pediatrician for Intermountain Healthcare, said in a news conference Friday. “I personally would like to see kids wearing masks in school, especially in that age group.”

But Utah lawmakers have banned districts from requiring masks, and it’s not clear whether unvaccinated students will wear them voluntarily.

“In an ideal world, we would have everyone who isn’t ... vaccinated mask when they’re indoors in the classroom, and we would vaccinate as many of the kids who are eligible as we could. If we did that, school would be about as close to normal as we can make it,” agreed Dr. Andy Pavia.

”Unfortunately, the school districts and local health officers have had their hands tied,” he added, ”and quite frankly, many of us are very upset about that and worried.”

Pavia urged parents to be proactive in trying to shape the norms in their childrens’ classrooms before lessons begin.

“Schools can’t mandate masking, say, in a 4th grade classroom,” he said. “But there’s no reason the kids, their parents and the teachers can’t band together and do the right thing.”

Meanwhile, with a three-week wait between the first and second doses, it will soon become increasingly clear how many of Utah’s middle- and high-schoolers will start school vaccinated.

“If you want your kids to have adequate immunity on day one of school, now is the time to start the series,” Pavia said.

About 38% of Utah’s 12- to 18-year-olds were vaccinated as of Friday — more than national norms, Pavia said, but nowhere near the 70% or 80% needed for herd immunity, which would protect, for example, immunocompromised students.

“The picture this fall is going to be very different than we thought it might be when things were looking better,” Pavia said. “There’s going to be a lot of concerns about transmission in school.”

But getting parents to allow their children to be vaccinated is proving difficult in the face of what Pavia called “malicious” and “deliberate” misinformation on social media: for example, claims that the vaccine’s side effects are more severe for children, that teens are protected from serious symptoms if they get the virus, or that the vaccine causes infertility.

“That is 100% total hogwash,” Pavia said. “There are a few groups who are seeding Facebook with misinformation.”

Pavia and Duffy urged parents to make vaccination decisions for their children in consultation with their own doctors. “I think it’s really good to talk to someone that knows you personally,” Duffy said.