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Walensky urges vaccinations for eligible children as pediatric hospitalizations rise to highest levels yet

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) speaks during an interview with the Associated Press on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, in Atlanta.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday pleaded with parents to get their children vaccinated if they are eligible, as hospitalizations among children are rising and the Omicron variant continues to fuel a surge in COVID-19 cases that threaten to return schools to remote learning.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky noted that a number of schools across the United States returned to virtual learning after winter break due to a surge in COVID-19 cases, mostly due to the Omicron variant. But schools can reopen and stay open with the CDC’s guidance, Walensky said.

“Our updated recommendations for isolation and quarantine and our prior publications and continued assessment of ‘test-to-stay’ protocols in schools provide the tools necessary to get these schools reopened for in-person learning and to keep them open for the rest of the school year,” Walensky said.

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On Thursday, the CDC relaxed its isolation and quarantine guidelines for schools, aligning it with recommendations issued last week for the general public. Teachers, students, and staff who test positive should isolate for five days, and those who develop symptoms can end their isolation if they are fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication and if other symptoms have improved, according to the agency’s updated guidance.

After the isolation period, they should continue to wear a mask for the next five days when around other people at home and in public, the guidance says.

The CDC also last week endorsed “test-to-stay” programs, which allow close contacts of students infected with the virus to stay in school if they test negative.

Massachusetts operates a program in its K-12 schools, and it has been widely praised for allowing large numbers of children to stay in school. The state said this week that it will launch a similar version for child care centers in upcoming weeks.

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Most schools remained open in Massachusetts following winter break, but at least 10 schools delayed class due to low staffing or to test teachers and students.

In Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu on Thursday warned that the surge in Omicron cases could force the district to close schools.

“We are approaching the point at which specific Boston schools may need to close with or without remote learning,” Wu said during a Thursday press conference, citing the high absentee rate of staffers, many of whom are sick with COVID-19.

In some Boston Public Schools, more than 40 percent of school staff were out because of COVID-19, Wu said. The district’s superintendent, Brenda Cassellius, filled in as an elementary school teacher this week due to the staff shortages.

On Thursday, Massachusetts schools reported a staggering number of new COVID cases in a two-week period among students and staff, with nearly 40,000 cases among students and more than 12,000 among school staff members. The high number of cases came after the state launched a campaign to increase testing before the return to classes after winter break.

Walensky also noted that hospitalizations among children have reached the highest rate at any point during the pandemic, while hospitalizations are also increasing for the four-and-under age group that is not yet eligible for vaccines. While encouraging vaccinations for eligible children, Walensky cited CDC data that show the rate of COVID-associated hospitalizations in unvaccinated children was 11 times higher compared to vaccinated children.

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“I strongly encourage their parents to get them vaccinated, and if they are 12 or older, get boosted,” Walensky said.

She also discussed the importance of surrounding young children with vaccinated adults in order to provide those who are not yet eligible for vaccination a layer of protection.

“Please, for our youngest children, those who are not yet eligible for vaccinations, it’s critically important that we surround them with people who are vaccinated to provide them protection,” Walensky said. “This includes at home, at daycare and preschool, and throughout our entire community.”


Amanda Kaufman can be reached at amanda.kaufman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandakauf1.