Virginia schools have about 420,000 children between the ages of 12 and 15, and about 63 percent of them have received at least one shot, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said during a news conference Monday.
But vaccinations are not evenly spread: Alexandria has the highest vaccination rate for children in the state, at 98.5 percent, followed by 92 percent in Arlington. But the rates are much lower in other parts of the state, such as Highland and Patrick counties, on the western and southern borders, respectively, where the rate is 17 percent.
“These wildly different rates are a good reminder that we still have much work to do,” Northam said. “We don’t want to see the same trends happen with our younger children.”
Children under 12 are not yet eligible for the shots, but a recent finding showed that a low dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is safe and effective in children ages 5 to 11, which is a step toward authorization of the vaccine for that age group. Virginia officials are planning to be ready to distribute the vaccine to children under 12 by late October, if the shots are authorized, Northam said.
“There are religious reasons, there are medical reasons that some individuals can’t be vaccinated, but the great majority of us can be vaccinated, and so we’re going to do everything we can,” Northam said. “We’re going to have vaccination clinics at our schools to make it as convenient as we can for these families. I would love to see 80, 85 percent or even higher, of our children get vaccinated.”
Arlington County officials are modeling their plans to vaccinate children under 12 on what they did to vaccinate older children and 91 percent of their instructional staff, said Francisco Durán, the county’s schools superintendent.
Vaccine clinics in the county are already available at school during the day, evenings and weekends, Durán said. Clinics are also open even when school isn’t in session, such as on days when only teachers go in for professional development. The goal is to bring those clinics to elementary schools when eligibility expands.
“Our parents in our community are familiar with their ability to come to their school and get those services that are needed,” Durán said.
And in Roanoke, school officials have been meeting on a weekly basis to discuss the best way to vaccinate children under 12, said Verletta White, the Roanoke City Public Schools superintendent. Similar to Arlington County, the city plans to provide vaccinations on-site, in an effort to ensure that schools are safe places to return.
“The majority of our students do best in person, so we’re doing everything we can to follow our health mitigation strategies,” White said.
Weeks into the school year, many school leaders say they are confident in their ability to protect students. In Richmond, officials have identified 200 coronavirus cases among students and staffers, said Jason Kamras, the superintendent of Richmond Public Schools.
But, “the good news is, over 98 percent of those did not occur within school, they occurred outside of school, so what that tells us is, the mitigation strategies are working,” Kamras said. “I would venture to say the safest place for children, in Richmond and I would say across the commonwealth, is inside school.”
Still, school leaders say they are excited for the day when most children can get vaccinated, even as the infection rate in Virginia has slowed. The seven-day average of new cases in Virginia was 3,102 on Monday, compared with 3,580 one week ago, according to The Washington Post’s tracker.
Hospitalizations in the state are down 3 percent compared with one week ago, with 24 people hospitalized for covid-19 per 100,000. But in certain areas of the state, capacity is the highest it’s ever been.
While cases have plateaued, nearly everyone testing positive for the coronavirus in Virginia is unvaccinated, Northam said.
Vaccination or weekly testing is mandated for the state’s more than 100,000 employees, and 75 to 80 percent of them have gotten at least one shot, Northam said. State officials plan to continue to appeal to the unvaccinated, while preparing to not only vaccinate children under the age of 12, but also to provide booster shots to older adults, those with underlying conditions, and certain workers who have received Pfizer doses at least six months ago.
About 700,000 Virginians are eligible for booster shots, and 350,000 of those are health-care workers, said Danny Avula, the state’s vaccine czar.