Analysis: What we know (and don't know) about COVID-19 vaccines and Idaho schools

Posted at 1:01 PM, Nov 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-19 15:01:47-05

This article was originally published by Kevin Richert in Idaho Ed News.

Perhaps by the end of this long 2020, teachers could be among the first Idahoans to get a coronavirus vaccine.

But the optimism — and there is reason for genuine optimism — is shrouded in logistical uncertainty. And clouded by harsh short-term reality. For Idaho and for its schools, things will almost surely get worse before they turn around.

We now know that two vaccines appear to be on their way. Both have aced their early trials, stunning the scientific community in the process; Pfizer and BioNTech have reported their vaccine is 95 percent effective, while Moderna Inc. has reported 94.5 percent effectiveness.

Both companies are expected to apply soon for federal emergency use authorization, and that means millions of vaccines could be shipped out by year’s end.

Now, let’s talk about more things we know, and some things we don’t know.

Where do school employees fall in line?

Pretty close to the front, according to an interim version of Idaho’s COVID-19 vaccination plan.

The first vaccines will go to Idaho’s health care workers, such as hospital employees, pharmacists and workers in long-term care facilities. That’s Idaho’s Category 1A.

K-12 school employees fall into Category 1B along with a host of other critical workers, such as police officers, firefighters and prison employees. However, this is a “very large group,” because it also takes in senior citizens and Idahoans with underlying medical conditions, said Dr. Carolyn Bridges, a physician consultant to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and a member of the state’s coronavirus working group.

How long will school employees have to wait?

That’s a big unknown. It hinges on when (or whether) Pfizer and Moderna get the go-ahead from the feds, how many vaccines the companies can manufacture and whether other companies’ vaccines make it through the trial phase.

Obviously, having two vaccines on the cusp of approval is better than one, since it increases manufacturing capacity. But this an unusual challenge — where scarce supply meets a historic demand. Bridges preaches patience, and not just to school employees.

“You may not be able to get (a vaccine) on the day that you want it, but you will be able to get it.”

What about vaccines for students?

Also an unknown. Pfizer has included 12-year-olds in its trial, but it’s unclear whether the company will seek emergency authorization to provide vaccines to children.

And how about higher education?

Another question mark. It’s not clear when college and university employees, or students, will be able to get a vaccine. The University of Idaho and Boise State University declined comment this week, saying it’s too early to speculate about how vaccines could affect daily operations.

What will it take to get to herd immunity?

That, after all, is the finish line. That time when classes, school athletics and extracurricular activities such as band and choir can return to some semblance of pre-coronavirus normal.

But herd immunity — that threshold when a virus fizzles out, because the population is adequately protected — is tough to calculate. Take it from Bridges, a former Centers for Disease Control staffer who has worked on vaccines for 25 years.

The measles vaccine is highly effective, but measles is also extremely contagious, so it takes 95 percent coverage to prevent a school outbreak. A flu vaccine isn’t as effective — researchers have to change formula every year as they predict new mutations — but the flu is also less contagious than the measles. So, 85 percent coverage can provide herd immunity to the flu.

The novel coronavirus is a new contagion, and the vaccines are new too.

But we can predict this much, based on past behavior. It’s unlikely Idaho will get to 95 percent coronavirus vaccine coverage.

The state does not require parents to vaccinate school children. The state has a list of vaccine guidelines, and it allows parents to opt out of vaccinations simply by turning in a note to their kids’ school. Idaho’s opt-out rates are traditionally among the highest in the nation. For 2019-20, the state’s immunization rate was 86.5 percent.

Where do vaccines fit into the big picture?

Think of them as one tool to help schools operate safely. Principals and teachers will keep emphasizing face masks, social distancing and hand-washing — especially during the vaccine rollout.

“The vaccine is just one resource we’re going to have,” state superintendent Sherri Ybarra said Wednesday.

What does the short-term look like?

Not good.

Idaho’s new coronavirus cases and COVID-19 deaths both hit one-day peaks Tuesday. The death toll now stands at more than 800. According to University of Washington modeling, cited widely during the pandemic, Idaho’s death toll will approach 2,650 by March 1. (Or 1,750, if Gov. Brad Little were to change course and issue a statewide mask mandate.)

If the pandemic continues on its grim and well-established course — increased case numbers translating to increased hospital admissions and increased deaths — that will only make it more difficult for schools to ride through the next few months and keep their doors open. That means more school districts might be forced to follow the Boise School District’s lead, shifting to online learning as cases spike in schools and in the greater community.

Idaho School Boards Association Executive Director Karen Echeverria is taking the long view. She sits on Idaho’s COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee. She doesn’t expect to see much change this school year, because she doesn’t expect school employees to get the vaccine before spring. Her members aren’t holding out much hope for a sudden reversal of fortune.

“They’re just worn out,” she said. “They’re just tired.”

But there’s reason for optimism, right?

Ybarra has heard a range of emotions from educators in the field — hopefulness as they welcomed kids back for fall classes, fear and apprehension as Idaho’s case numbers have skyrocketed.

The vaccine news is one source of optimism, she said, but not the only one. “I’m more hopeful than where we were last spring. Every day we’re learning something new.”

After a quarter century of working on vaccine issues, Bridges says she’s constantly optimistic. And she doesn’t sound that surprised that, within a matter of just months, science stands on the verge of releasing vaccines that could bring a fearsome pandemic under control. Significantly, she doesn’t see the rapid development of a coronavirus as an outlier, but instead an outgrowth from what researchers have learned from battling other viruses.

“This progress did not come out of the blue,” Bridges said.