Epidemiologist suggests delay to school year to ramp up Covid-19 vaccination rollout for children

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The government should delay the start of the school year to buy more time to vaccinate the younger population, an epidemiologist says.

Happy kids at elementary school

The government says the plan to reopen schools will go ahead as planned. (file image) Photo: 123RF

More than half a million doses of the children’s Pfizer vaccine arrived in the country over the weekend, ahead of the rollout for 5 to 11 year olds next week.

University of Otago epidemiologist Amanda Kvalsvig said Omicron had triggered an avalanche of infections in children overseas that were now overwhelming schools.

“Schools and hospitals are struggling to manage the high rates of infection and there are rising concerns about post-acute effects in children, including Long Covid and an increase in autoimmune problems like diabetes.”

Dr Kvalsvig said on top of vaccinations, more work was also needed to optimise classroom ventilation, secure more supplies of high-grade masks, and ease access to rapid antigen tests.

The government should be working ahead of future Omicron outbreaks by delaying the start of Term 1 while the new variant was still at bay in New Zealand, she said.

But Professor Peter McIntyre, an Otago University paediatrician specialising in infectious disease, said the suggestion was an overreaction.

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Professor Peter McIntyre. Photo: University of Otago

“The harm to children from lack of access to school is going to be far more significant, particularly for disadvantaged children, than any possible exposure to Covid-19, which can be managed in the school setting anyway.”

Prof McIntyre said while some parents may be anxious about sending their kids back to school, keeping classrooms closed should be a “last resort” measure to protect the community.

“I think it would be unwise for parents to [keep their children at home] because I think even for – and in some ways especially for – a vulnerable child having the opportunity to attend school is very important. I think children, including vulnerable children, can be adequately protected in the school setting.”

Covid-19 duty minister Grant Robertson said schools would reopen as planned at this stage, although the government was constantly reviewing its Covid-19 response in light of Omicron.

He said the government was confident young people aged 12-15 were now well-protected from the virus, with 90 percent of this group now fully vaccinated.

The vaccine mandate for teachers and school staff who interact with students is also now in force, meaning this workforce is now double-vaccinated with those eligible for a booster shot encouraged to do so.

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