GREAT BARRINGTON — Public school students won’t have to take COVID-19 shots in order to attend school, because of concerns about short- and long-term vaccine safety versus the minuscule risk the virus presents to young, healthy people.
In responding to a request Thursday from the Berkshire Hills Regional School District to consider whether the town should force vaccinations on children who attend the schools, the Board of Health decided to “wait and see” if enough convincing evidence emerges regarding vaccine safety for children to weigh whether to add the shots to the list of required vaccines for school. The district had decided on a mandate only for staff, but not for students.
“The risks are there, and they aren’t insignificant ones,” said board Chairman Michael Lanoue, who said he especially is concerned about reports of myocarditis — that is, an inflammation of the heart — reported in healthy boys and young men after they had been given the vaccines. “We know, historically, there are drugs and therapies that get pulled off the market for the risks.”
The board’s job is to educate and enforce certain rules, but mandates go too far, said Dr. Ruby Chang, a board member and pediatrician.
“Talk to your doctor about vaccinations, because each person has a different situation and different tolerance, [has] a different understanding and a different risk,” she said. “And it should be individualized. Just mandating something is [not] very respectful of people’s personal needs.”
Chang supported the role of vaccines in protecting the larger community. She pointed to other vaccines and how children can’t isolate because they need caregivers and adults around them.
“How many times do we vaccinate children with the flu vaccine to help them, but [also] to help the elderly because the elderly can get very sick with it. So, there’s a much broader picture of public health associated with vaccinations,” Chang said.
Yet, coronavirus vaccines are not preventing transmission of the virus, Lanoue noted. Despite the high take rate in town, caseloads have mounted to some of the highest levels yet, he added.
At least 95 percent of Great Barrington and Alford residents, in most age groups, are vaccinated fully, according to state data. The rate is 69 percent for those ages 17 to 19, and 50 percent for younger children.
In November, 56 cases in town were confirmed. Countywide, the rolling seven-day average for daily new cases has been ticking up, and as of Thursday it stood at 79, according to the state Department of Public Health. About 69 percent of county residents have received inoculations.
Public health and medical officials say they are seeing a milder illness for those who become sick, said Health Agent Rebecca Jurczyk.
Given rising cases, and the holiday season, board members agreed that their directive to social distance and wear masks when around others in public, regardless of vaccination status, should continue, and they will meet again Dec. 16 to consider whether their rules should be tweaked. In January, they will revisit vaccines for children.
Rising cases, risks
The board has been reluctant to issue vaccine rules. Its decision to hold off on any mandates came the day after the school district, facing pushback from parents in a public meeting held via Zoom, agreed that unvaccinated students should not be barred from extracurriculars like sports and drama. Students who have not taken the shots would continue to participate in weekly pooled testing.
“We don’t want to take away opportunities for kids because of what their parents are doing or not doing around vaccines,” School District Superintendent Peter Dillon told The Eagle.
The district will continue to encourage vaccination. As of Thursday, 85 percent of students in grades seven through 12 have had shots; so have about 50 percent of students from kindergarten through sixth grade, as well as over 99 percent of faculty.
Lanoue said he wished someone from the school district had attended the meeting. And he doubled down on his concerns about risk — he was troubled by the idea presented by some physicians that young people can recover from the heart ailment caused by the shots. He said it is “dismissive,” given the potential for long-term implications.
He noted a study, not yet peer-reviewed, that found the risk of myocarditis in healthy boys ages 12 to 15 higher than their risk of hospitalization from a COVID-19 infection.
Another study countered that, reporting a risk of myocarditis to be 37 percent higher in children sickened with the virus.
Lanoue said he worries that trial data for testing the vaccines won’t be released by pharmaceutical companies for decades.
Some research indicates that vaccination reduces the spread of the virus; other research indicates that the vaccinated and unvaccinated have the same potential to transmit it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the shots are safe for children, despite some small risks of side effects.
Yet, it is these risks, and those that are unknown, as well as contradictions, that appear to be keeping the board from pushing the issue, especially when it comes to children.
Lanoue said he would like to see more discussion of preventing the other health problems, or “comorbidities,” that do have a clear link to COVID-19 illnesses and deaths. He said this dialogue has been squelched for fear of dissuading people from getting vaccinated.
“We never talk about other things as public health officials; what can people do to promote their health?” he said, pointing to the benefits of exercise and sunlight.
Chang said the vaccines, isolating and the continued wearing of masks are the ways back to normal life.
“We can’t just say, ‘We’re going to just vaccinate the kids and everything’s going to go back to normal,’” she said. “There’s much more that we could do to say, ‘Hey, it’s really not a good idea to have all these kids in the same locker room.’”