In a highly anticipated meeting, the Cincinnati Public Schools Board of Education has taken a bold step on COVID-19 vaccinations.
The BOE voted Monday to approve a new policy requiring all educators, support staff and in-district partners to be vaccinated from the coronavirus by fall. CPS is now the first major district in Ohio to mandate COVID-19 vaccination.
All employees and partners must receive their first injection by Oct. 1, with their second shot to follow within the vaccine's recommended timeframe.
CPS employees would be able to apply for an exemption from the vaccination mandate for medical or sincerely held religious reasons. Political beliefs will not be considered for vaccination exemptions, the new policy says. New CPS employees will be informed of the mandate and would need to provide vaccination proof before the first day on the job.
The CPS policy largely is based around employees receiving the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer, as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration fully approved it for use in adults ages 16 and up in August (those who have received vaccines from other manufacturers will still be in compliance). The remaining vaccines in the U.S. market — Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — currently only have emergency use authorization, but all have been deemed by global health officials as safe and effective. Because Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed a bill this summer banning schools from requiring vaccines that haven't received full FDA approval, the two-shot Pfizer series is the only one that officially can be required.
During the Sept. 13 meeting, CPS also discussed possibly requiring COVID-19 vaccination for eligible students in the future. Currently, Pfizer's vaccine has emergency use authorization for people ages 12 years and older, while Moderna's and Johnson & Johnson's vaccines are authorized for those over 18 years old. Because the Pfizer vaccine was the first to receive emergency use authorization last December and has collected more data from nationwide trials, it likely will be the first to receive full FDA approval for teens.
No COVID-19 vaccines have been approved or authorized for children under age 12 yet, but trials and data collection are under way. Former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb recently told CBS that he expects the agency to give Pfizer emergency use authorization this fall for vaccine use in kids ages 5-11.
In August, the Cincinnati Public Schools Policy and Equity Committee proposed the vaccination policy as part of the district's requirement to provide workplaces "free of known hazards" and to "safeguard the health of our employees, our students and their families and the community at large from COVID-19," according to policy language.
CPS had been discussing a vaccination mandate for some time, especially as COVID-19 cases attributed to the highly transmissible Delta variant have mounted all summer long. The district announced in early August that it would continue to require masking from all employees and students within district buildings.
Doctors have been sounding the alarm over the increase in pediatric COVID-19 patients. People age 18 and younger have made up one-third of September's COVID-19 cases so far in Ohio, according to state data. Furthermore, data from the Ohio Hospital Association shows COVID-19 hospitalizations among Ohioans ages 17 and younger have increased 857% over the last eight weeks.
The pediatric cases are part of Ohio's sustained spike in COVID-19 cases overall and is concerning as students recently have returned to schools without firm health protocols like masking and physical distancing. After opening for the school year in August, many schools in southwestern Ohio have already closed due to high numbers of students and staff contracting the virus.
In 2020, many health experts had initially believed that children naturally were more immune to the coronavirus than adults were, but with continued research, scientists have since found that masking and social distancing had largely kept kids from encountering or spreading the virus during those first infection waves. In addition, the Delta variant of the coronavirus is much more transmissible and has a higher viral load than the original strain had.
Dr. Patricia Manning-Courtney, chief of staff at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, recently said that masking earlier in the pandemic meant very low rates of COVID-19 and respiratory illnesses in kids. But things are different now.
“Now that we have loosened up on our masking practices and kids are getting back together, whether it’s in school or other settings, we’re seeing explosions of these other respiratory viruses at a time when we never see them,” she said.
“As a developmental pediatrician, the one thing I can say with confidence that many of us agree on is that we want kids to be back in school. Unfortunately, the tools that we can use to do that safely are being variably employed, and I think that does place students and teachers at risk,” she added.
“I really want to stress that our entire pediatric healthcare system is under stress and strain right now. By that, I mean our emergency rooms, our urgent cares, our primary care practices, our community physicians are seeing some of the highest volumes that they ever see,” Manning-Courtney said.
Manning-Courtney said that the ever-increasing number of patients means that hospital officials have to make difficult decisions about deferring surgeries, turning away transfer patients and postponing outpatient visits. “That will mean affecting care for everyone — even those who don’t believe that COVID-19 is real."
“If you’re a human being and you might have a healthcare issue, this affects you. Because if you need a healthcare system to meet your need… and particularly if you’re a child, you might need a healthcare system. If those healthcare systems are under so much stress and strain and we have limited beds, your ability to get any kind of care will be impacted because we will have to make decisions around where our resources go,” Manning-Courtney said. “We don’t want to have to do that, so we’re begging you to help us.”
Manning-Courtney stressed that getting vaccinated from COVID-19 is the best way to protect loved ones.
“When you think about what you can do to protect the kids in your life, you can get vaccinated,” Manning-Courtney insisted. “You can wear a mask when you’re indoors, including at school. You can really be careful about large events and whether or not those need to be attended. All of those things will help us manage those volumes that we’re dealing with.”
As of Sept. 14, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labels every county in Ohio as being at high risk for COVID-19. Ohio has been under the CDC's most severe warning level for weeks.
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