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Tricia Bunderson: Masks and vaccines needed to protect Utah children as they return to school

Kids will be harmed by collective inaction and poor policy choices.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students at Canyon View Elementary in Cottonwood Heights line up on the playground as they go back to school for the first day of classes for the Canyons School District on Monday, August 24, 2020.

If everything goes according to schedule, children ages 2-11 may be eligible for COVID vaccination as early as this fall. In spite of this fantastic news, it seems that Utah has chosen to pursue a “herd immunity via natural infection” strategy in the meantime for our kids. Inaction is action, and many kids will be harmed by collective inaction and poor policy choices.

Let’s start off with a few stats. There is a prevailing idea that COVID-19 poses a negligible risk to children. This is simply untrue. While we know that the risk of severe disease is much lower in children than in adults, the numbers are still quite sobering.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Utah has had 81,000 kids under age 18 test positive for COVID, 729 (0.9%) were hospitalized, 45 required ICU-level care, over 100 have been diagnosed with severe inflammatory MIS-C, and two have died.

For context, the number of Utah kids hospitalized during the last year with COVID-19 is several times greater than the number of pediatric hospitalizations we typically see in a regular flu season. Keep in mind, those COVID numbers are with universal masking in schools and other public health interventions to help slow the spread.

And those stats don’t include the effects of Long COVID. More research is needed in this area, but a recent study from the UK showed that approximately 7% to 8% of kids had symptoms that persisted for 12 weeks, some for months longer. These Long COVID symptoms include fatigue, heart palpitations, muscle and joint pain, concentration difficulties, cough, rash, headache, dizziness and nausea. Some of the effects are debilitating enough that they impede normal day-to-day activities. COVID’s risk to children should not be measured only by hospitalizations or deaths; it must also factor in chronic and long-term illness.

Most experts believe that COVID-19 will become endemic, meaning it will continue to circulate among humans for the foreseeable future. There are areas of the U.S. that have achieved high vaccination rates and continue to drive down transmission. Utah is unfortunately not one of those places. With only 38% of our total population vaccinated, the highly contagious Delta variant is changing the game, especially for the unvaccinated — and that includes children.

Since Memorial Day, our case counts and hospitalizations have doubled, the test positivity rate continues to climb, and a larger share of infections are coming from younger age groups. We have the fifth highest case rate in the nation. Models are predicting that Utah will have 1,000-1,200 daily cases by late August. Just in time for school to start.

On May 19, Gov. Spencer Cox called a special legislative session, in which the House and Senate passed HB 1007, effectively banning mask requirements in public schools next year. This was a premature and short-sighted call. New information, new variants and new trajectories demand renewed action from individuals, communities and policy makers.

On an individual level, if you have not been vaccinated, please make a plan to do so as soon as possible. The vaccines do an incredible job of preventing infection, hospitalization and death. Vaccines have always been about more than just protecting ourselves; they are an altruistic way to keep our families, friends and more vulnerable members of our society safe too.

On a community level, I urge the Utah Area Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, leaders of other local denominations and organizers of large indoor gatherings to more strongly encourage vaccination and to make mask-wearing the norm in our congregations and youth classes while transmission rates are high and until kids have the opportunity to be vaccinated.

At a policy level, I’m calling on Gov. Cox and the Utah Legislature to schedule a special session to reinstate universal masking in schools. As situations change, so must policy. Allowing the Delta variant to spread uninhibited in schools, when an effective vaccine is on the horizon, is indefensible. Inaction will result in many more children being hospitalized, facing long-term illness, or worse.

You are knowingly gambling with children’s lives.

Tricia Bunderson

Tricia Bunderson, Lehi, is an emergency room nurse and mom of four kids under age 12.

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