BLOUNTVILLE — The window of opportunity for Sullivan County Schools students to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 prior to the first day of school is closing, and county officials are concerned some students and parents might not realize what is at stake.
While case numbers continue to improve and social distancing and face mask rules have eased, current guidelines still call for quarantining of students if they are identified as having had potential exposure to COVID-19.
And that could apply to whole classrooms or entire athletic teams.
“I don’t think parents are aware of that, perhaps,” Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable told the Times News on Friday. “We’re about eight weeks from the start of the new school year. I heard this morning, during our weekly meeting with health officials, that not many school-age children have shown up for vaccination clinics. I hope parents realize the threat of exposure to the virus still exists and that it means their child or children could still end up quarantined or in isolation during the upcoming school year. Our first concern, of course, is the good health of our students. But I can’t help but worry about their potential disappointment if a potential exposure causes them to miss out on ball games, or dances, or whatever. Imagine if the first football game scheduled at West Ridge were to be canceled.”
Venable brought the issue up earlier in the day during a meeting that included Director of Schools David Cox and interim Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski.
Rafalowski was the first to voice concern about the low number of students getting vaccinated.
She noted it has left her wondering if enrollment numbers could drop, that it might be an indication some parents are planning alternatives to returning their children to the system or to “enroll them otherwise.”
“We started our vaccine clinics this week, and we have not had a very good turnout for our students or teenagers for vaccination,” Rafalowski said. “We hoped it would be higher.”
“The protocols have not changed,” Venable said. “Based on my experience, and your experience ... you will be quarantining this fall. You know you will.”
Cox said a special clinic for COVID-19 vaccinations at Central High School last week drew only about 25 individuals.
Twenty-six people received the Pfizer vaccine at Central on June 9-10, according to county health department records provided to the Times News by Gary Mayes, director of the department.
Seventy-six Pfizer vaccines were given at Tennessee High on June 7-8. And 108 Pfizer vaccines were given at Ross N. Robinson Middle School. All those were first doses.
Rafalowski said she knew the Sullivan County Regional Health Department had advertised and promoted the clinics. And Cox said the school system had used its electronic notification system to send messages to student contacts to spread the word about the clinics to encourage COVID-19 vaccination for students age 12 and over.
No vaccine has been approved for use on children under age 12.
Only the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for use in the 12-18 age group. Pfizer is a two-shot vaccine, with three weeks required between doses.
Dr. Stephen May, medical director of the health department, said the definition of “fully vaccinated” applies to a student at least two weeks after the second dose. That means from the date of the first dose, a student is at least five weeks away from being “fully vaccinated.”
The school year for county schools begins Aug. 9. That means to be fully vaccinated by the first day of school, a student would need to have a second dose of vaccine no later than July 26, which in turn means a first dose of vaccine no later than July 5.
“It has not gone away,” Mayes said of COVID-19. “It is still here. And there are new strains or variants here.”
May said students who do not meet the definition of fully vaccinated will be quarantined in the event of potential exposure, which is considered being within six feet of someone with the virus for 15 minutes or more.
That, May said, can be tricky to calculate in some situations, especially team sports.
Students who have been fully vaccinated would not be subject to quarantine after potential exposure, but their health would be monitored, May said.
“That can be a big advantage for ball teams, close contact sports, and coaches,” May said, noting the greatest number of cases now are among those age 10 to age 40. “We know the vaccines are protective. Children can be rapid spreaders of disease. That doesn’t mean they will get seriously ill themselves, although they can. By vaccinating children we are stopping the biggest disease spreaders.”
Rafalowski said the most recent student enrollment count for the county system was 8,629. West Ridge High School is expected to open with 1,920 students, she added.
May and Mayes said more special clinics will likely be scheduled, but vaccinations are available to the public through the health department’s two offices and also through many other health care providers in the region.
COVID-19 vaccinations are currently being given at the health department’s main office in Blountville on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays; and at the department’s Kingsport branch office on Mondays and Fridays. Hours at both locations on all days vaccinations are offered are 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Appointments can be made by calling (423) 279-2777. Walk-ins are also welcome.
Pfizer vaccine is available to anyone 12 years of age and older, but minors will need parental consent to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. Johnson & Johnson vaccine is also available to anyone 18 and older.
Those who would like to receive a COVID-19 vaccination at another location should visit vaccines.gov to locate other providers in the area.