Sep. 25—As the Food and Drug Administration wrestles with approving the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5-11, local school administrations and pediatricians sound off on whether existing COVID-19 vaccines should become mandated, much like mumps or measles are.
Both school Superintendents Mark Laurrie and Hank Stopinski, who work in very different districts — one in the heart of Niagara Falls and the other in the rural fields of Hartland and Royalton — are adamant of their choice to vaccinate themselves and are advocates of COVID-19 vaccines as a way to keep kids in school and safe.
But to mandate parents to get their kids the shot? That's something entirely different.
"I think there should be an encouraging peer-to-peer push," Laurrie of Niagara Falls said. "I'm not one for mandates. I believe that's the parent's choice. I believe the parent's have that right for their child."
Laurrie said the problem is even more complicated than at first glance, because of problems with the children in his district getting mumps and measles vaccinations.
"We still work with kids to get those shots," he said. "Those aren't even being given and ... HPV, which is a very necessary teenage shot for boys and girls, in my opinion. (There's a) very low number (getting it). So, now when you mandate this, you're going to really further divide school districts and you're going to have two districts: the remote and the in-person, and the remote doesn't work well."
Superintendent Stopinski of Roy-Hart said the decision was out of his "skill set."
"I'm an advocate for children being vaccinated, there's no doubt about that," Stopinski said. "I would encourage everyone to do that. A mandate is something that I think is a public health issue that I think the scientist and the public health professionals need to really get together and make that decision. It's not a school superintendent's job to mandate that."
He noted that if it is mandated, it will be treated like any other vaccine.
"All those are established because of public health concerns," Stopinski said. "I'm not sure where the public opinion and science is on COVID. ... I want our kids in five days a week, in-person, and whatever it takes, in my mind, is what we've got to do."
Doctors weigh in
Pediatricians, as well, seem wary of any mandate, even as they praise the results of the vaccines. Dr. Chris Beney of Lockport spoke frankly.
"We've done about 2,500 tests of the office and about 13% of those are positive and I would say a majority of them are children," Beney said. "From babies all the way up. I think the delta variant has hit children harder than the first Covid that was out and it definitely seems to be targeting them more than the first round. ... Some of them are getting very sick."
When asked about a possible mandate, Beney said he would not comment, except to state that one of the positives of a vaccinated population is that lives would be saved.
"Will the mandate help save lives?" he continued. "I think it will. A mandate would save lives. Either the lives of the children or the lives of the relatives of the children, because in most cases when the child gets Covid they do well, but then they spread it too their parents and we are seeing young people getting very sick, young adults. When you vaccinate children, you're vaccinating for them, but you're also vaccinating them for people they spread it too as well."
Beney continued on that thread of viral control.
"The more cases we have, the more likelihood we're going to get more variants," he said. "The longer you let a virus spread, the more likely you're going to have variants of that virus. If you are able to prevent any cases, then you can prevent variants that arise from those."
Dr. Shawn Ferguson of Lewiston Village Pediatrics also weighed in on the questions surrounding children being vaccinated and whether there should be a mandate.
"At this point its early to say, because kid's can't get vaccinated, except the older kids and I don't think we've been vaccinating those long enough to get a good idea of how effective that has been," he said. "But we do see in general, in all ages, if kids have the vaccine, they can still catch Covid, but you're not going to get as sick. ... They're much less likely to go to the hospital. ... The younger kids, because they can't get it (the vaccination), they're much more vulnerable."
As a physician, Ferguson said he's fielded many questions from parents about vaccinations for their children. He also noted that it may be too soon to mandate the COVID-19 virus vaccines, but once vaccines for mumps and measles were mandated, they have been "incredibly effective."
"There's plenty of data showing the vaccines are very safe, and there's plenty of data showing how effective they are, but in terms of setting public health policies?" he said. "A lot of that will depend on, over time, how sick the kids are getting, but I would not be surprised ... if the public health officials at some point decide to make that a mandate. At this point, I think that's premature, but someday that may happen."
As to the concerns, he is empathetic and does his best to provide a roadmap of what to expect.
"The majority of concerns come from misinformation that's out in the media and social media and it seems like almost every day I hear something else that is absolutely not true and a lot of times we try to dispel this," Ferguson said. "A lot of times I find with the kids ... after the second dose, some kids get a little fever, some get a little tired. That's the majority. Most kids have no symptoms at all. I just say, especially after that second dose, don't make any big plans the next day and if you feel a little sick, just watch a little TV, some Netflix and you'll be fine."
The YWCA of Niagara Frontier has many services for those in need, including helping the homeless, as well as those coming from violent relationships. One of its programs is the affordable before-and-after school care it provides for students.
While the organization has mandated its staff to be "100% vaccinated," it does not make vaccination for COVID-19 a pre-requisite for participation.
But there isn't any lack of encouragement.
"We're very pro-vaccine organization," CEO Kathleen Granchelli said. "As of next Friday, 100% of our employees will be vaccinated. ... We take care of many fragile populations here, including children who, when it's available and safe for them we would highly wish they get vaccinated."
"We don't mandate participants, we only mandate staff," she said. "We're not in the position to mandate any of those populations. ... What we can control here is creating a safe environment for the women and children"
Grandchelli also noted that all CDC guidance, including masks and social distancing, continues to be followed.
Local pediatrician, Dr. Bill Baier gave some guidance to the Lockport School Board at their Wednesday meeting.
"I think one of the things we've received recently is the fact that there has been an uptick in the number of children who have suddenly came down with COVID or COVID variants," Baier said. "One of the things that people have to consider is the vaccine for children. I think in our duty to get the kids back in school, it's a step in the right direction."
Baier mentioned the incoming FDA decision on the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for those aged 5 to 11.
"Not only are they going to be able to give the kids between 12 and 17, they're introducing shots for children five to 11," he continued. "I think it's one of the bigger things, it's still in the works. ... All in all, it's a step in the right direction."