Virtua Experts Urge Back-to-School COVID-19 Vaccination

Doctors at Virtua Health have an urgent request for all families: Please, please have your children vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as possible.

“Hospitals are already being flooded with children who are sick with COVID-19, especially in Florida, Louisiana, and other states with lower vaccination rates,” said Dr. Martin Topiel, head of Infectious Diseases at Virtua Health, South Jersey’s largest health system.

“That could happen here, too, as kids return to classrooms this fall. So it’s critical that eligible children and adults—everyone age 12 and older—get vaccinated,” he explained.

The vaccines are highly effective at preventing serious illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19. Vaccinating all eligible children and adults will also help prevent spreading illness to younger children who can’t yet be vaccinated—especially when kids are back in school, Dr. Topiel said.

New Jersey has mandated face masks indoors at school this fall, to help slow the spread of illness. Virtua experts also advise everyone to wear masks in all indoor public spaces—especially now that every N.J. county has reached this criteria by the CDC of higher cases and transmission—and to physically distance from others and wash their hands frequently.

Local cases rising: All of these actions are now more important than ever because the Delta variant—now the dominant form of COVID-19—appears to be far more contagious than the original form of the virus.

“It’s really like a different virus,” noted Dr. Jennifer Khelil, Virtua’s chief medical officer. “With Delta, people develop infections more quickly, have higher levels of the virus in their body, and often get a lot sicker—including kids.”

“Unvaccinated children and adults who contract Delta have a much greater likelihood of being hospitalized than those who are vaccinated,” added Dr. Topiel.

Both physicians are very concerned about the rate of transmission associated with the Delta variant—which some experts compare to chicken pox, an extremely contagious illness.

In fact, cases are already surging in South Jersey. In Burlington and Camden counties, for instance, cases rose 149 percent and 217 percent, respectively, over the past two weeks. (Source: nytimes.com/interactive/2021/us/new-jersey-covid-cases.html)

“The overwhelming majority of cases are occurring in unvaccinated people,” said Dr. Khelil. “Vaccinated people are highly protected from getting sick, and almost entirely protected from being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19, including the Delta variant.”

“What’s tricky,” added Dr. Topiel, “is that a vaccinated person may acquire the Delta variant, feel perfectly fine, and still pass the virus to others—especially unvaccinated people and those with underlying health conditions. That is why everyone—including vaccinated people—should continue the safety behaviors we’ve all learned over the past 18 months, including masking, social-distancing, and hand-washing.”

A parent’s view: Cherry Hill mom Kate Laskowsi did not hesitate to get her family vaccinated this spring. Earlier in the pandemic, the whole family got COVID-19—suffering up to five days of fevers, chills, and headaches. The three kids had to get lung x-rays and heart tests to check for long-term damage.

The Laskowskis wanted to protect themselves from catching COVID-19 again and becoming even sicker, said Kate, a teacher at Cinnaminson High School.

Additionally, the family is hoping for a more “normal” school year—including all in-person classes—which is more likely if all eligible students are vaccinated.

“In my 22 years of teaching, last year was by far the most challenging,” said Laskowski, whose school used a hybrid model of online and in-person classes. “I would not want to go back to that for anything.”

Son Matt, 13, thinks “everyone should get vaccinated if they want to go to school.”

“I just want this pandemic to go away,” said the rising eighth-grader, whose Cherry Hill middle school alternated between all-remote and hybrid classes last year. “If you can get vaccinated and help the world, just do it.”

How to get vaccinated: COVID-19 vaccines are safe, free, effective, and widely available in South Jersey and beyond. To schedule a vaccine appointment, find a walk-up vaccine site, or for more information about vaccines and COVID-19, visit virtua.org/services/covid19-updates.

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