ST. PAUL -- While Minnesotans begin to leave behind the face masks and emerge from more than a year of public health restrictions, many families are still concerned about COVID-19.
Currently, vaccinations are only available for adolescents as young as 12 years old. At the same time, the more transmissible delta variant continues to grow a larger presence of new cases in the state.
But with a return to classroom learning at the end of the summer, parents have a lot of concerns to consider.
Here are some answers from Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcom and other officials:
When are vaccinations going to be available for younger children?
Many manufacturers for COVID-19 vaccinations have reported that vaccines for younger children — between 5 and 12 years old — will likely be available in the fall.
That’s sooner than originally expected, said state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann, where earlier on, public health experts expected that we wouldn’t have a vaccine for younger children until 2022.
“I know it’s hard to wait when you have kids that haven’t yet been able to be vaccinated,” she said. “But I do want to point out that we’re looking at the potential for vaccine that is a whole quarter sooner than we had originally thought.”
What advice are public health agencies like the CDC and MDH giving for the upcoming school year?
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said that Minnesota will continue to evaluate guidance that comes from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and update the state’s guidance accordingly.
“The CDC is essentially saying you still need to pay attention to what’s the level of transmission in your surrounding community. But they are leaving a lot of discretion in the hands of schools,” she said.
The CDC still advises a multilayered approach to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including avoiding large concentrated gatherings of students for extended periods and masking.
Malcolm also acknowledged the lack of a uniform approach, even across the state, can leave parents and educators confused.
“But at this point and time, really, everything is in the realm of recommendations, not requirements, unless a local jurisdiction or school district chooses to make it a requirement,” she said.
Are kids more susceptible to this new variant?
Ehresmann said regarding the severity of the delta variant for children specifically, the jury is still out. But in Minnesota, the delta variant has seen 16 percent of cases result in a hospitalization, compared to 7 percent for the alpha variant, also known as B-1.1.7., and 5 percent compared to the original coronavirus strain.
“I want to acknowledge that yes, we are seeing more hospitalizations, which could suggest a greater severity,” she said.
Ehresmann added that with two deaths caused by the delta variant in Minnesota that attributed to about 2% of cases, which is a slightly higher rate than the original coronavirus strain.
While overall, a smaller percentage of children have been infected and have had severe symptoms from the coronavirus, the risk is not zero, and the percentage of children and people under the age of 19 who have ended up in the hospital has been steadily increasing over the last few months, Malcolm pointed out.
“So even if it’s a smaller percentage, there is risk to younger people. They have been quite ill, hospitalized, in the ICU, even in Minnesota,” she said. “The risk to kids is not zero. It is less, to be sure, but severe cases do happen.”
Should I and my kids still wear a mask? And if so, when?
Whether traveling, attending church services or visiting family and friends, there’s still a question about safety, especially for children or those who are immunocompromised.
Malcolm said while vaccinations aren’t yet available for younger ages, it will still be the best protective measure that we can take regarding the variants, masking in crowded areas or places that could be a high risk is an extra measure of security.
“Continuing to mask in crowded areas does make some sense for a lot of people. It’s an extra measure of security, if you will, and protection,” she said. “Just being aware of those same basic principles: avoiding close contact on a sustained basis with lots of people as you're traveling.”
Ehresmann, expanding on the idea of continuing to mask for anyone who worries about the personal health of themselves or close family members, said masking is still a good practice. While the vaccines have scientific evidence of being effective at reducing your risk of infection or transmission, they’re still not 100 percent effective.
“I think the bottom line is that it’s never wrong to wear a mask. It’s never wrong at all,” Ehresmann said, “and if you feel uncertain, certainly wearing a mask makes sense. It certainly isn’t required, but it’s not wrong.”
The Health Department along with the CDC still recommends that those who are not vaccinated continue to wear a mask.
Hosting gatherings outside can also help reduce the risk for children or those with significant health risks, Ehresmann said.
Malcolm added that expert pediatricians and pulmonologists have said that they are not seeing health concerns for children wearing masks.
“There’s still a protective factor for masking for younger students,” Malcolm said.
How can parents know if teachers and students are honest about their vaccination status?
Ehresmann noted that state health officials will work with schools, local health departments and the Minnesota Department of Education to evaluate the right level of COVID-19 monitoring and surveillance.
That may mean using resources to follow up on when there’s an increase in student absences or reports from faculty.
“Every case is still reportable to the department, and so we still get that basic information of person, place, time, age. So we would have the capacity to say, ‘My goodness we just had 20 cases in 10-year-olds reported from Olmsted County, we need to look into this’ [for example.]” Ehresmann said. “Even with the changes that we’re making, we have the capacity to identify if there are issues.”
However, there are no requirements for vaccination of any school employee or students. Malcolm noted that she understands a parent’s concern, however, when it’s not clear how to verify a school employee or fellow student’s vaccination status.
“That’s a very realistic and fair question that parents will have about, if this is all an honor system,” she said. “How confident can I be in it? That’s just one of the knottier implementation details that we need to work through.”
At what point would Minnesota require a vaccine for children attending public schools?
Currently, the state does not require vaccination against COVID-19 in a school or child care setting, and Ehresmann said there are no plans currently in place to require the vaccine on the list of required immunizations set by state law.
Ehresmann said the Department of Health has the authority through rule-making to add the vaccine to a list of required immunizations, but the process would take about 18 months moving at a fast pace.
But just like other required vaccinations, an exemption is allowed for those who conscientiously object to receiving a vaccine.