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  • Dr. James Lee

Welcome to 2021- Vaccines and School Return


I’d dropped off the blog /commentary routine as our pandemic unfortunately resurged and intensified as we moved from fall into winter. The holidays and colder weather resulted in the anticipated but regretful resurgence. Vaccine roll out excited us as we indeed made vaccines available in record time. And, in the midst of all this, we had a national election and post election controversy that co-dominated the headlines and consumed much of our time and energy. This collision of pandemic and politics has affected us all. We have been left, in part, questioning facts and beliefs and even our trust in our institutions. There is polarization and most unfortunately an undermining of credibility regarding our scientific institutions and organizations. The vaccine should not be politicized.


As we move into the later part of January, we see, fortunately, a plateauing of covid numbers and vaccines are coming online but in limited supply and availability. That’s true nationally and locally. However, hospitalization and deaths remain high and the numbers are almost unfathomable. We’ve exceeded 400,000 deaths with no obvious end in sight. The nightly news numbers seem like Ground Hogs day.


Locally, we’re in the same boat. Despite the recommendation of the governor to open up vaccine availability to all high risk populations and workers, the vaccine supply is inadequate and there is no short term solution in sight. Public health officials have rightfully targeted the elderly as the highest priority. They face the highest mortality rate and are the most vulnerable.


At the same time, as the governor has strongly recommended, school systems are preparing to reopen schools- hybrid style at least. This is not met with open arms but public health officials analyzing national data feel that school reopening, at least in its hybrid, limited group way, does not pose an undo public health risk. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be easy or not controversial. Kids will get sick. Parents will need to scramble to find alternative care arrangements and, as I’m fond of saying - we may have control of the class room but not of the parking lot. Many of our families have adjusted to virtual learning, but some have not and the disparity between those two groups is ever widening. That is not good and return to school is a priority- scary but a priority.


The role of vaccines is similarly bipolar. Some are desperate to get vaccinated, some are hesitant. This spreads across occupations and socioeconomic status. Part of this is human nature and part of this has been amplified by our current political climate.


So what’s ahead? Schools will reopen, in some format, and vaccines will become available, even if the time line or supply chain remain unclear. And there will be ongoing uncertainty. Will new COVID strains trigger another resurgence? Will the vaccines live up to their reputation? Will we be be able to hang in there with our current public health measures? Can we get any way near "back to normal"?


So here are my personal reflections.


1) The push to school return is justified - from a public health and child advocacy standpoint. But I’m not an educator. I hardly understand the difference between synchronous and asynchronous learning formats. How do you teach to a classroom and a computer screen simultaneously? How can you feel safe in a school environment without at least the availability of a vaccine? Those are tough questions. These are tough times.


2) Vaccinations matter! The technology was in place, the vaccine experts made it priority #1, the timeline was streamlined but no corners were cut and reputable corporations and researchers made this work. Hopefully over time their work will stand on the pantheon next to Jonas Salk as a remarkable vaccine achievement that will have saved millions of lives. And just as there most certainly was fear of the unknown and it consequences to combat polio with a new vaccine, we ultimately eradicated a terrible disease with trust and faith in science and scientific institutions.


A critical tool to combat this pandemic is now available to us too. It’s now our time to stand up and support and embrace our fellow researchers and public health experts. We, especially health care workers and educators, need to be role models. We need to trust the science and our scientific institutions. They are us and we are them. Join me in rolling up our sleeves. We can make it through this pandemic but it will take all of us to be committed and for those of you who have placed your trust in us and me for the care of your children and families, continue to hold my hand as I (and we) lead the way.


With caution and awareness but ultimately determination we forge ahead. Together.



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