Flu shots, keeping kids home when sick are top back-to-school strategies in 2022

Thousands of students across Oregon are settling into the first few weeks of school and many classes are back in person, but the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing and flu season is just around the corner. Monkeypox also continues to spread throughout the state. Dr. Jennifer Vines, public health officer for Multnomah County, spoke with all things OPB host Crystal Ligori on Monday about what students and parents need to know as we return to the classroom.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Crystal Ligori: The newest virus of concern in the state is monkeypox, also known as hMPXV. The Oregon Health Authority has already confirmed more than 100 cases in the state. But how concerned should parents and schools be about the spread of this outbreak among children and teenagers?

Jennifer Vines: Of course, children can get monkeypox just like anyone else. Need skin-to-skin contact with the rash. But we hope so far we haven’t seen too much [pediatric] cases. [There’s been] only one in Oregon in one child [younger than 18].

And this is where public health case investigation and contact tracing is very effective. As we learn about cases, we can do prevention within the family, hopefully identify anyone at risk, get them vaccinated, and keep them out of schools. And even if it’s in a school, [we can] do the same kind of case investigation and contact tracing to keep it from spreading to a school. So while it could certainly be introduced into a school, we’re optimistic that it would be unlikely to become widespread in schools this fall.

FILE PHOTO: Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines, speaks during a press conference in March 2020.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

Ligori: Let’s get back to COVID-19. Masks are no longer required in schools, and the Oregon Health Authority is posting COVID data less frequently. But school officials are urging families to test their children for symptoms of COVID. So what should parents and students think about when deciding whether or not to dress up at school?

Vines: Families should think in terms of returning to some sort of pre-COVID approach to illness. If your child is unwell for any reason, they should stay home from school until they feel better or completely on their own for at least 24 hours. If they have COVID, then it’s still a 5-day isolation period. If they feel good [after that], they can go back to school wearing a mask. If they have had an exposure to COVID, the recommendation is 10 days of masking at school.

If you just don’t know, the key would be just to make sure they are okay before they come back. I think parents have vaccine options now for children of all ages, including boosters for 5 and older and the new reformulated booster for 12 and older. I think these are steps other than staying home when you are sick.

Vaccinating your family will help slow the spread within your family and possibly within the community. All of these are tools that can stabilize schools, keep kids in school, keep them learning. Masking will be in play, but I think it will be on an individual voluntary basis if we don’t see too many cases in one school and then public health would be there to support the school district and make any decisions about widespread masking. [requirements].

Ligori: CDC has signed off on those updated versions of the Pfizer and Moderna boosters that specifically target the omicron subvariant BA.4 and BA.5. Pfizer’s booster was authorized for people 12 years of age and older, and Moderna’s for people 18 years of age and older. How soon do you think students and families should prioritize their next vaccine?

Vines: Specific omicron boosters will be most important for older adults and most important for those with underlying health conditions. I think they are available to healthy young people as a way to promote short-term risk reduction in terms of infection. They are an important option and people should get good information and talk to their healthcare provider if they think this is a good choice for them.

By far the most important vaccines are the first two doses, what we call the main series generally Moderna and Pfizer. Here we see the greatest reduction in risk in terms of severe disease and in some of the worst outcomes of COVID. So these extra boosters come into play more for at-risk adults, but for those who want to lower their short-term risk of infection and want to take the omicron booster towards fall, [getting it] some time within the next month along with the introduction of the flu vaccine would be wise in terms of the number of COVID cases.

Ligori: What do you think we can expect as we move into fall and winter?

The vines: We are at peace now with COVID. We are in one of the valleys between these waves of illness that we have experienced over the past several years. I think generally the expectation is that as people go indoors and as immunity from spring and summer infections wears off, we’re going to see more COVID-19 infections going into this winter. And this will be one of the first [winters] without extensive public health protection.

It will also be our population’s first bout with the flu, which has similar symptoms and is also vaccine-preventable. So this is an uncertain time.

It’s expected to be a harsh winter, but hopefully the use of vaccines, people staying home when they’re sick, and the voluntary use of masks will help mitigate the effects in our daily lives and hopefully in our hospitals. We know that fall is usually flu season.

Ligori: What can parents and students expect with the flu, RSV and other viruses?

Vines: One important thing for parents to remember about the flu is that unlike COVID, the flu can be serious in children under the age of 5 and especially those under the age of 2.

Of course, COVID can be serious in those age groups, but they are not generally considered risk groups for COVID. They are for the flu. And so vaccinating the youngest among us and making sure families are vaccinated against the flu is an important strategy. It’s not a new strategy, but not one to be forgotten as we begin living with the flu and COVID during the fall and winter.

Ligori: Recently, the polio virus was found in sewage in New York. And last week the city declared a state of emergency to boost vaccination efforts. Do we see something similar here in Oregon in terms of vaccination rates?

Vines: The situation in New York is somewhat unique, but it’s certainly setting off alarm bells for public health departments across the country to be on the lookout. I don’t know that our statewide sewage program is looking for polio at this point, but polio is completely preventable through routine childhood vaccination. And so, to the extent that our public health efforts are focused on getting children up to those routine school-required vaccines would be better from a polio prevention standpoint.

Leave a Comment