In the spring of 2020, when the coronavirus shut down schools in Massachusetts, children traded overstuffed backpacks for a much heavier burden: empty classrooms, hours spent in front of a computer at home, isolation from friends, cancellation of sports, dances, plays, and music. For many, social connections were lost. Others — unable to connect or thrive online — lost months of education and social development.
When students returned to class last spring, they wore masks, gathered next to open windows, and strained to hear over the hum of ventilation systems. They repeatedly have done what they were asked to do to keep their families, friends, communities, and schools safe.
With the Delta variant pushing cases higher in Massachusetts and around the nation, we face another unsettling season of COVID. All of us — parents, schools, government, health care, businesses, and nonprofits — owe it to our kids to come together around a single, urgent purpose: to vaccinate as many 12-to-19-year-olds as possible to keep schools open and safe this year.
We also owe it to them to think creatively about how to enlist some nontraditional messengers, especially those whom young people hold in high regard and will listen to, including professional athletes, entertainers, and other celebrities, as well as their friends, neighbors, teachers, and primary care providers.
We should also think creatively about how best to bring the vaccine to them where they live, work, and hang out.
This summer, Boston Medical Center has been partnering with schools, community groups, and local nonprofits to make vaccines available at festivals, playgrounds, and church basements. The Boston Public Health Commission has also been holding back-to-school clinics around the city.
Boston Children’s Hospital has been hosting vaccine clinics open to all on-site and at its Martha Eliot Health Center in Jamaica Plain, as well as partnering with community-based organizations to provide education and address vaccine hesitancy.
We need to expand these efforts and target them to settings that will allow us to vaccinate as many young people as possible, settings that both young people and their parents know and trust.
As the chief executives of two Boston hospitals that share a combined pediatrics residency program for new doctors, we know the importance of collaboration. We’ve also seen how effective the three vaccines approved for use in the United States are in preventing serious illness from COVID, including the new Delta variant. The vaccines work, and they are safe.
Massachusetts has so far been spared the COVID spikes and hospitalizations seen in other regions of the country this summer, thanks to our state and municipal leadership, high vaccination rate, and adherence to public health measures like masking over the course of the pandemic.
Though health officials and scientists are still learning about the Delta variant, the danger to unvaccinated adolescents is real. So is their ability to spread the virus if they get COVID, even if they experience no symptoms. Nationally, the rate of children hospitalized with COVID is rising, to an average of 216 patients a day, nearly the same as during the last big national wave in January. Earlier this month, the number of children hospitalized with COVID hit a new record, with more than 1,900 filling pediatric wards.
There isn’t enough information yet to know whether children are more likely to get seriously ill from the Delta variant than from the earlier strain of COVID, or whether it’s simply far more transmissible. We do know that children who have been hospitalized with COVID and also had underlying medical conditions sometimes face months of recovery.
We owe it to our children to reduce COVID infections now, for their own health as well as to keep schools open before the state faces the possibility of empty classrooms again this fall or winter.
Children have borne the brunt of this pandemic in ways they will never forget. We have to make sure it ends there and that we leave them with a world where COVID is no more than a seasonal nuisance, like the common cold, or eradicated altogether thanks to vaccines.
We can get there if we all work together to send our kids back to school this year with a backpack and a vaccination card.
Kevin Churchwell is CEO of Boston Children’s Hospital. Kate Walsh is CEO of Boston Medical Center.