Virginia is preparing to vaccinate children against COVID-19 in schools as soon as the Pfizer shot is approved for those between ages 5 and 11, Gov. Ralph Northam said Monday.
Northam said during a news conference that the state Department of Health is working with local school divisions and superintendents to roll out the vaccines as soon as they are available and that administering shots in schools would be equitable and efficient. The Pfizer vaccine is expected to be approved for children ages 5-11 in late October or early November.
"We want to make sure this is as easy on parents and children as possible," Northam said, adding that no specifics are available yet.
Northam used a large portion of the news conference -- his first on COVID-19 since early August -- to castigate Virginians who have not yet been vaccinated. About 80% of Virginia adults have received at least one dose of a vaccine, Northam said, but those who have not been vaccinated are ensuring the virus will continue to spread and mutate.
The number of new COVID-19 cases in Virginia has declined about 10% over the past week but still remains more than double the level of a year ago - before vaccines were available.
"The numbers are still way too high. Ask any exhausted nurse in any hospital in Virginia," said Northam, adding that data show that nearly everyone who is getting severe cases of the virus is unvaccinated.
"By choosing not to get vaccinated you are absolutely hurting other people," by making it difficult for others to get hospital care they might need. "You are costing everyone a lot of money."
He noted that he had COVID-19 a year ago and his senses of smell and taste have not returned. "And the COVID variant that is going around is a lot worse than I had."
While acknowledging that he probably can't change the minds of the unvaccinated, Northam urged them to think about their choice.
"Give thought to how you want your family to remember you, think how you want your obituary to read," he said, "because you're taking a foolish, dangerous chance, and it affects many more people than just you.”
Northam said he knows the state faces challenges persuading parents to have their children vaccinated against COVID-19. He cited for example vast differences across the state in the percentages of 12- to 15-year-olds who have been vaccinated -- from highs of 98.5% in Alexandria and 92% in Arlington County to lows of 17% in Highland County and Patrick County.
“These wildly different rates are a good reminder that we still have much work to do,” he said.
Northam was joined at the news conference by three local school superintendents, including Arlington's Francisco Durán, who touted the benefits of in-person schooling as well as the efforts they have made to mitigate transmission of COVID-19 in schools this fall.
For example, Richmond City Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras said the city has had 200 COVID-19 cases among students and staff since reopening, but over 98% of those did not occur within schools.
“That tells us the mitigation strategies are working,” Kamras said. Still, he added, the number of students who have to quarantine due to positive cases is disruptive to learning. “The very best way to limit quarantine is to increase vaccination.”
Northam said that while vaccinating 100% of children would be his goal, he knows that's not realistic but would like to get to 80% or 85%.
“If you want your kids in school every day, not quarantined at home… there is only one answer – get vaccinated. It’s the only way forward.”
Northam's news conference occurred as President Joe Biden received a booster shot of the Pfizer vaccine, which has been approved for immunocompromised individuals, anyone over age 65, front-line workers and those with underlying health conditions. Dr. Danny Avula, Virginia's vaccine coordinator, said that makes about 700,000 Virginians eligible six months after receiving their second shot.