By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — The more people who are vaccinated — the less opportunity the SARS-CoV-2 virus will have to make people severely ill.
The availability of vaccines for children ages 5 to 11 “is a huge step forward in our fight against COVID-19,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services Bureau of Communicable Diseases.
Dr. Westergaard and Stephanie Schauer, Ph.D., Division of Public Health Immunization Program Manager, gave a media briefing on pediatric vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 on November 3.
Wisconsin currently has a very high case activity level of COVID-19, with a majority of the counties at a very high level of transmission, although there are now fewer counties with critically high levels of virus transmission, Dr. Westergaard said.
While the surge of COVID-19 nationwide caused by the Delta variant of the virus seems to have turned a corner and is on a downward trend, in Wisconsin, the cases of COVID-19 seem to have reached a plateau, he said.
On the day of the media briefing, 1,334 new cases of COVID-19 had been reported in Wisconsin, and the average was 1,888 cases per day, Dr. Westergaard said.
Children under the age of 18 have the highest numbers of cases, more than any other age group, he said.
In Wisconsin, 93 percent of the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds are full, and 94 percent of the intermediate care beds are full, meaning that hospitals are operating at capacity, Dr. Westergaard said.
As of November 3, all together, 8,554 Wisconsin residents had died from COVID-19, and among Wisconsin residents, 3.2 million have completed their vaccination series, he reported.
The COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer will protect the children and those who are around them, Dr. Westergaard said, adding that he was urging parents to get their children vaccinated as soon as possible and that he would be getting his own children vaccinated at the first opportunity.
In addition, Dr. Westergaard said he continues to urge Wisconsin residents to continue with other mitigation strategies to help slow the spread of the virus, including wearing a mask indoors, staying at home when you feel sick and avoiding large indoor gatherings.
Masks in schools
A reporter from WTAQ Radio in Green Bay asked about the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding masks in schools.
At the beginning of the school year, the CDC issued guidance that masks should be worn by all students and staff in school settings, Dr. Westergaard said.
The goal is to get low transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in all communities, he said.
Before scaling back on any of the mitigation strategies, including wearing masks and physical distancing, there should be low transmission of the virus. Achieving low transmission will take time, and vaccinating younger children will help, Dr. Westergaard said.
Number of doses
A reporter from WBAY TV in Green Bay asked about the number of doses of the Pfizer vaccine that would be available for children, noting one clinic in Green Bay had reported that the clinic would be receiving 1,500 doses per week.
The initial allotment that Wisconsin will receive is 170,000 pediatric doses, Schauer said, adding that she did not know how many doses would be available in subsequent weeks.
As time goes on, those who are providing vaccines will be able to place orders, she said.
A reporter from Wisconsin Health News wondered if the health systems operating at capacity with a “burned out” workforce would have an effect on the roll-out of the vaccine for children ages 5 to 11.
Wisconsin has a variety of vaccinators available, including primary care physicians, pharmacies and county health departments, Dr. Westergaard said.
“But that’s an important message,” he said.
The hospitals are full and the healthcare providers are “worn out,” and the best way to support the hospitals and all of the healthcare providers is by preventing disease by getting the COVID-19 vaccine and the influenza vaccine, Dr. Westergaard said.
“We need to all work together to help our healthcare providers,” he said.
Schools and vaccines
A reporter from WSAW TV in Wausau asked about the role that schools might play in getting children vaccinated.
School-based vaccine clinics would be one strategy, Dr. Westergaard said, adding that he did not know how many schools are planning to participate.
The schools can play a role as a partner with local public health departments, he said.
The COVID-19 vaccine has “a good track record for safety,” Dr. Westergaard said.
KT Gallagher, director of the Dunn County Public Health Department, said at the October 28 meeting of the Dunn County Health and Human Services Board that the health department currently had no plans to set up vaccine clinics at schools.
The health department would want parents to actually be there when their children are being vaccinated so there is fully-informed consent, she said.
The Dunn County Health Department will be receiving some pediatric doses of the vaccine, Gallagher said.
Some people do not have a primary care provider, or there is a problem with getting to a clinic, so the Dunn County Health Department is available by appointment to do vaccinations, she said.
Another reporter asked about written guidance from the CDC about the pediatric vaccine.
Written guidance on the pediatric vaccine will be coming soon from the CDC, Schauer said.
Written guidance will be the “green light” for providers to review the information and do the training on administering the vaccines, she said.
After the vaccinators have done the training, then they can do the vaccinations, Schauer said, adding that she hoped the guidelines would be published by the end of the week.
One-third of parents
A reporter from PBS Wisconsin noted that in a September survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, one-third of parents of children ages 5 to 11 said they would get their children vaccinated right away as soon as the vaccine is available.
It is okay for parents to have questions and to be vaccine hesitant, “but I hope all (of the eligible children) will get vaccinated eventually,” Dr. Westergaard said.
COVID-19’s risk of severe illness among young children “is much lower, (but ) it is not zero,” he said.
The risk of severe illness from COVID-19 is the same as influenza among young children, Dr. Westergaard said.
Even though the risk of severe illness is much lower, COVID-19 can still cause hospitalizations among young children, and to date, nationwide, there have been 8,000 hospitalizations of children ages 5 to 11, he said.
The vaccine results in a 90 percent reduction of symptomatic COVID-19, but COVID-19 can also cause multi-system inflammatory syndrome, and there have been over 100 cases in Wisconsin, Dr. Westergaard said, noting that COVID-19 is not the only disease that can cause multi-system inflammatory syndrome.
We should “not trivialize how dangerous” COVID-19 can be for children, he said.
The virus is “highly, highly contagious,” and while a young child might get mild symptoms, children can still spread the disease and put older adults at risk, Dr. Westergaard said.
The United States has a robust system for the safety of vaccines, and hundreds of millions of doses of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine have been administered with very few adverse reactions, he said.
The benefit of the vaccine far outweighs the risk, Dr. Westergaard said.
A reporter from NBC 15 in Madison wondered if children who are nearly 12 should wait to get the vaccine because the doses are less for children age 5 to 11 while children who are 12 and older get the same dose as an adult.
Children should receive the dose for the age that they are — that is, if the child is 11 and gets the first smaller dose but then turns 12, the child should then get the increased dose for the second shot, Schauer said.
Getting the vaccine now is better than waiting weeks or months, she said.
The pediatric doses are also a two-dose series, so it takes five weeks for children to be fully vaccinated, Schauer said.
A reporter from Wisconsin Public Radio asked if DHS knew how many children there are in Wisconsin aged 5 to 11.
About 495,000, Schauer said.
A reporter for the Racine County Eye wondered if there were concerns about a surge in COVID-19 cases this winter.
The virus shifted with the Delta variant and drove the increase in transmission. The wave has turned the corner nationwide and peaked several weeks ago, Dr. Westergaard said.
The Wisconsin curve, on the other hand, is not declining steadily and is at a plateau, he said.
We are now entering the season where respiratory viruses circulate more, and most respiratory viruses get worse in the winter when people spend more time indoors, Dr. Westergaard said.
Residents in Wisconsin should be prepared to see an uptick in COVID-19 and influenza and should be aware that both COVID-19 and influenza will put more strain on hospitals, he said.
Keeping cases as low as possible will save lives, and the vaccines will help to reduce the case numbers, Dr. Westergaard said.
A reporter for WISN TV in Milwaukee noted that Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers quarterback, has tested positive for COVID-19 and is not vaccinated and wondered if DHS was concerned about the “message” that would send to Wisconsin residents.
Dr. Westergaard said he could not comment on an individual people’s health decisions but that he wants everyone to be healthy and wants everyone to get vaccinated.
A reporter from TMJ4 in Milwaukee said Aaron Rodgers had talked about an “alternative treatment” for COVID-19 and asked if there are other ways besides vaccinations to prevent the disease.
The evidence-based strategy for preventing COVID-19 is through vaccination, Dr. Westergaard said.
There are “mountains of data” showing that the vaccines greatly reduce the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19, he said.
Dr. Westergaard noted that those who have recovered from COVID-19 do have antibodies to the disease but that he did not recommend getting sick as a way to obtain the antibodies.
A reporter from the Wisconsin Examiner noted that vaccination rates in rural areas around the United States are lower than urban areas and asked if there were new initiatives to address the vaccination rates in rural areas of Wisconsin.
There are different vaccination rates across the state of Wisconsin, and there are different efforts across the state to reach people, Schauer said.
That’s why all the county health departments are important as are all of the pharmacies offering vaccines as well as all of the other healthcare partners, she said.
A reporter from the Wisconsin State Journal asked about any campaigns to reach vaccine-hesitant parents.
It is an important priority to have clear messaging, Dr. Westergaard said.
DHS relies on the media to help get those messages out, he said.
A reporter from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked which sites were getting the most pediatric doses: pharmacies, clinics or health departments?
Vaccinators can request the number of doses that they will be able to administer, Schauer said.
Not every branch of every pharmacy will have the vaccine, she noted.
A reporter from WKOW in Madison said there is only one clinic in Madison that has indicated pediatric vaccines would be available.
There is a robust network to enroll providers in many different sectors, Schauer said.