As PH readies face-to-face classes, COVID continues to unleash the unknown
MANILA, Philippines—On Monday (Sept. 20), as Malacañang announced the green light from President Rodrigo Duterte to conduct limited in-person classes in areas with low COVID risks, Education Secretary Leonor Briones said vaccination won’t be required of teachers and school staff who would take part in the pilot tests of face-to-face classes.
Teachers and staff 65 years old or below and have no comorbidity, or preexisting medical condition, could take part in the pilot test “regardless of their vaccination status,” Briones said at a press briefing.
Briones said vaccination was not mandatory yet and preventing the unvaccinated from serving as teachers or school staff would be a violation of their rights.
However, health experts and child rights advocacy groups have been pushing for the inoculation of adults as an added protection for children against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Protecting children against COVID-19
The government has yet to include children and adolescents in its vaccination drive as it continues to struggle to achieve herd immunity by vaccinating at least 70 percent of the population.
This was despite granting emergency use authorization, or EUA, to two vaccine brands—Pfizer and Moderna—for children aged 12 to 15 years old.
According to Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, the health department will not yet give a go signal for the vaccination of minors due to the lack of vaccine supply.
“We need to consider the current vaccine supply before we decide to allow the vaccination of children,” Duque said at a taped briefing with Duterte last Aug. 9.
“That’s why the recommendation of the DOH stays— to give priority to adults based on our prioritization framework,” he said.
“Our experts said we can consider actually giving vaccination to children who might be having comorbidity. This might help in giving them additional protection from lethal COVID-19,” he added.
However, Duque mentioned the concept of “ring vaccination” or the vaccination of adults who are around children.
“Our experts recognized the effect of ring vaccination,” Duque said.
“This is what they call the cocoon concept in which, for example, if there are five in a house, four of them will be vaccinated. The child, even if not vaccinated, will already be protected,” Duque explained.
“Vaccinating adults will also be good for the children. That’s why, as long as we lack supply, we’re proposing that adults will be prioritized,” he added.
The same concept has been repeatedly used to advise adults to get their COVID vaccines to protect those who are not yet eligible for vaccination — including children.
“If you are already eligible, get vaccinated so we can also protect the children,” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said at an online forum last month.
“That, we call the cocoon strategy. If all of the adult population within the household are vaccinated, there is a lesser chance for children to be infected,” she explained.
Amid the alarming increase of COVID infections among children, a group of pediatricians is pushing to prioritize vaccinating older and adult groups.
They likewise emphasized the importance of vaccination among adults to prevent spreading COVID to children.
“Vaccinating qualified adult household members not only protect these individuals but also extends protection to children and other vulnerable persons who cannot be vaccinated,” PPS and PIDSP said.
Save the Children Philippines, a child rights advocacy group, reminded parents and adults to be more responsible and careful around children.
“We also emphasize our call to parents, guardians, caregivers, and communities for them to act more responsibly around children by strictly adhering to the minimum health and safety protocols to protect themselves and their children from the imminent threats of the Delta variant,” said lawyer Alberto Muyot, CEO of the group.
In a study published in Nature, a peer-reviewed science journal, data showed that the number of COVID-infected persons in Israel who are unvaccinated and under 16 years old dropped by half as more individuals aged 16 to 50 years old receive jabs.
The researchers analyzed vaccination records and test results that were logged during the rapid vaccine rollout in a large population from 177 geographically defined communities in Israel.
Results showed that the rates of vaccination in each community were connected to the decline in infections among unvaccinated individuals below 16 years old.
“On average, for each 20 percentage points of individuals who are vaccinated in a given population, the positive test fraction for the unvaccinated population decreased approximately twofold,” the study stated.
“These results provide observational evidence that vaccination not only protects individuals who have been vaccinated but also provides cross-protection to unvaccinated individuals in the community,” it added.
To put more perspective on the importance of vaccination among adults — specifically teachers and school staff — on the safety of students amid the reopening of classes, a study was released by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last month.
The study detailed an outbreak among elementary school students in California. The cases, according to the laboratory reports cited in the study, were linked to an unvaccinated teacher.
Last May 25, the study said, the Marin County Department of Public Health got an alert from a school saying that on May 23, an unvaccinated teacher was tested positive for SARS Cov2.
The teacher developed symptoms starting on May 19 but continued to work for two days before getting tested. “On occasion during this time, the teacher read aloud unmasked to the class despite school requirements to mask while indoors,” the study said.
On May 23, cases of COVID among other staff members, students, parents, and siblings connected to the school were reported.
In total, 27 cases were identified including that of the infected, unvaccinated teacher. At least 12 of the teacher’s 22 students tested positive for the virus.
“The attack rate in the two rows seated closest to the teacher’s desk was 80 percent (eight of 10) and was 28 percent (four of 14) in the three back rows,” the study stated.
Prior to Duterte’s approval of the limited in-person classes, Education Undersecretary Nepomuceno Malaluan said teachers from the school chosen to participate in the dry run will be vaccinated against SARS Cov2.
“There is an agreement with the Department of Health that the schools that will join the pilot face-to-face, despite not being included in the priority areas, will be given consideration for vaccination,” Malaluan said earlier.
Teachers have been moved up from B1 to A4 category in the vaccination priority list last April.
Unicef, in a statement, urged governments to prioritize giving vaccines to teachers.
“This will help protect teachers from the virus, allow them to teach in person, and ultimately keep schools open,” the United Nations agency said.
“While decisions about vaccine allocation ultimately rest with governments, the consequences of extended missed or impaired education are steep, especially for the most marginalized,” Unicef said.
“The longer children remain out of school, the less likely they are to return, and the more difficult it is for their parents to resume work,” it added.
According to data collected by the Unicef, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), World Bank Survey on National Education Responses to COVID-19 School Closures, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), only a few countries prioritize teachers in national vaccine rollout plans.
“While the protection of teachers is essential for schools to reopen safely, just 21 out of 197 countries—accounting for 18 million primary and secondary teachers—prioritize teachers in the first phase of vaccination efforts,” UNESCO said.
“Another 37 countries include teachers as a priority group for the 2nd phase of vaccinations. Meanwhile, 57 countries do not prioritize teachers at all whom are expected to be vaccinated within the general population after “priority groups,” it added.
In total, this accounts for 19 million primary and secondary teachers.
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