The delta variant wave of COVID-19 cases has significantly receded for all the state’s age groups. But a worrisome trend that started this summer continues into the fall:
Florida children 11 and under remain the highest-risk and least-protected age group from infection.
Case positivity for the youngest Floridians was 5.3 percent, according to the latest state data released last week. That is down from the peak positivity rate of 23 percent on Aug. 19, but it’s still higher than the current positivity rate of any other age group.
But the majority of every other age group has been vaccinated, while no vaccine has been approved for children 11 and under.
Nearly 3,000 children in that age range tested positive for COVID over a seven-day period from Oct. 8-14, according to the Florida Department of Health. That’s almost 90 percent lower than the peak weekly cases of 26,475 over the seven-day period reported Aug. 27.
Still, despite the recent fall in cases, the per capita caseload for Florida children 12 and under as of Oct. 2 remains higher than at any other point during the nearly 20-month pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And experts fear the coming flu season and holiday travel could could spark another COVID wave this winter.
Last week’s tally was still far too many infections — and far too many potential future infections — to Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Florida.
She blames lax safety measures for children and the fact that those 11 and under are still ineligible to get vaccinated.
“Early on the pandemic we were really protecting our kids,” she said.
Last year remote learning kept kids from spreading the virus in schools, and masking and social distancing kept everyone in the home safe. But when the vaccine rolled out earlier this year, she said, it felt like people relaxed and acted as if the pandemic was over.
Rasmussen believes there was no accounting for the continued risk faced by the unvaccinated, especially children, who in August returned to in-person schooling. The state is also battling several school districts over mask mandates for students.
“This is really showing the importance of a safe and effective vaccine for kids under the age of 12,” she said.
A panel of Food and Drug Administration experts will meet on Oct. 26 to decide whether to authorize the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. But even if it’s approved, it will take months to get a significant number of children vaccinated and longer still before they reach full immunity.
The first hurdle is the logistics of vaccinating Florida’s 1.7 million children who are 5 to 11 years old. The state has administered fewer than 1 million doses, including booster shots, in the past three weeks combined. The vaccination and booster effort now relies on doctors’ offices, pharmacies and clinics. Mass vaccination sites are long gone.
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“And it’s not like (the vaccination rate) among eligible younger people has been great,” Rasmussen said. In the seven months since the Pfizer vaccine was approved for children ages 12 to 15, only about 40 percent of them have been fully vaccinated in Florida, according to CDC data.
“For the Pfizer vaccine, it’s three weeks between shots and then two weeks before you’re fully protected,” she said. “So there’ll be five weeks until those kids are really protected from COVID.”
For example, someone vaccinated on Oct. 26 — days before children and families gather for Halloween — won’t reach peak immunity until after Thanksgiving, and so on through the holidays and then into winter. The holidays also means family gatherings and travel, which led to a rise in caseloads at the end of 2020 and the start of 2021.
“Even when this vaccine is authorized for kids 5 to 11 years old, those under 5 won’t be eligible,” Rasmussen said. “So, we’ll still have a group of kids we need to protect.”
The timing of when children will be eligible for COVID vaccines is concerning to public health experts because flu season is almost here, starting in November and lasting until the end of January.
Influenza cases were historically low last year in Florida and across the country. Most public health experts agree that keeping children at home along with masking and social distancing help curb the spread of the flu. But this winter might be different, said Dr. Juan Dumois, a pediatric infections disease physician at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.
“People’s attitudes have changed,” he said. “Fewer people are masking and children are back in school. I suspect there’s going to be a lot more opportunity for these winter viruses to be transmitted.”
There is a risk that hospitals, which were flooded during the delta variant wave, could see a repeat if another wave of COVID infections occurs at the same time as a return of severe flu cases.
It’s possible that people traveling and gathering for Thanksgiving and Christmas could kick off another winter wave of infections, Dumois said, adding: “And that superimposed on a flu season? We didn’t have that last year, and this year could be a lot worse for hospitals.”
Physicians fear Floridians may not get their flu shots, either because they’re tired of getting vaccinated or believe that the COVID-19 vaccine will also protect against influenza.
To be clear, it doesn’t. The good news is that unvaccinated Floridians can get both the flu and COVID vaccines on the same trip (or a booster shot for those already vaccinated).
Public health experts stress the need for ongoing vigilance to slow the spread of COVID.
“We’re lower than we were, but we’re not low yet,” Rasmussen said. “We’re still higher than when everything shut down in March 2020.”
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