With the start of classes roughly a month away for most Nebraska school districts, barely more than a third of the state’s 12- to 17-year-olds have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
In all, 54,642 of the approximately 161,000 Nebraskans in that age bracket have received at least one shot. That 34% one-shot rate trails the 38.2% national rate and places Nebraska 27th among the states, according to a World-Herald analysis of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Leading the nation, as it does in adult vaccination, is Vermont, with nearly 68% of 12- to 17-year-olds who have had one shot.
The rankings are similar when it comes to the percentage of Nebraska 12- to 17-year-olds who are fully vaccinated. Some 27.7% of Nebraskans in that age group have received two doses, ranking the state 26th.
Those breakdowns come as school officials weigh conditions for the start of the school year. So far, school officials have received conflicting information about at least one piece of that equation: namely, whether students should quarantine after contact with someone who has tested positive.
Under new guidance from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, a student who had contact would not have to quarantine.
The CDC, however, is recommending quarantining for unvaccinated students who have had close contact. Vaccinated people who are showing no symptoms are not required to quarantine. The agency also said vaccinated teachers and students don’t need to wear masks inside school buildings, a relaxation of previous guidelines.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, meanwhile, issued its own guidance Monday, including a recommendation that all students older than 2 years old and all school staff wear masks, regardless of vaccination status. The masking recommendation comes as part of a layered approach that also encourages vaccination and includes building ventilation, testing, quarantining and cleaning.
Lindsay Huse, the new director of the Douglas County Health Department, said Wednesday that health officials are speaking with local school district superintendents once or twice a week as they work to determine the best approach for the coming school year.
In addition, she said, local health directors are speaking with health directors across the state about how to integrate the different recommendations.
However, the lead-up to school openings comes as cases in the state, while still far below last fall’s peak, are on the rise and as the more-contagious delta variant of the coronavirus has gained ground.
One priority for health and school officials will be to continue to encourage vaccination for eligible students. The two-dose Pfizer vaccine is approved for people ages 12 and older.
Shots also are available through local health systems and several private pediatric practices.
Dr. Sharon Stoolman, a pediatric hospital physician with Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, said parents tend to worry whenever considering medical interventions for their kids because the children have long lives ahead of them.
One long-term concern parents have raised is how the vaccines might affect kids’ fertility. The answer, she said, is that they won’t. The messenger RNA used to train the body to respond to the coronavirus does not integrate into a vaccinated person’s genetic material.
In addition, the risk posed to kids by COVID-19 outweighs the possibility of very rare side effects from the vaccine, Stoolman said. Rare cases of heart inflammation in youths have been short-lived and treatable.
And, while young people are less likely than older people to suffer serious illness from COVID, she said, some children do become very ill and some suffer long-term effects, even from mild cases.
A young person who is going to school and participating in sports, Stoolman said, is more likely to get COVID-19 than to suffer a vaccine side effect.
Another reassuring sign should be the time researchers are taking to study vaccines in 6- to 11-year-olds, a process that’s still underway. If researchers were rushing the science, she said, shots for that group already might be available.
The Nebraska State Education Association, in a statement Wednesday, said vaccinations for those 12 and older are key to keeping schools open and students and staff safe.
“As a teacher and a grandmother, I … want to note that young children not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations rely on older vaccinated people for protection from the virus,” said Jenni Benson, association president.
Dr. Drea Jones, a member of the Douglas County Board of Health, said Wednesday that the CDC considers people of all ages in making its recommendations. Because children under 12 can’t yet be vaccinated, she urged strong consideration of universal masking for kids in schools.
Stoolman said she will be sending her elementary and high school-age students to school in masks, as the pediatrics academy recommends. She said she hopes parents will be allowed to make their own choices.
“We as parents have to take that on for our families and say, ‘How do we keep our families safe?’” she said.
World-Herald staff writer Joe Dejka contributed to this report.