School administrators are working out what the education process will look like in the fall, but one thing is definite: Students will need their immunizations.

Even as the eyes of the world are on scientists working feverishly to develop a vaccine against COVID-19, doctors are reminding parents to protect children against other diseases.

After closing their doors for three months to most routine visits to prevent the spread of COVID-19, local doctors are working hard to help parents catch up on wellness appointments and booster shots before schools reopen.

“People are cautious in terms of coming to the office, but it’s as safe as most activities are,” Dr. Jeanne Spencer said from Family Medical Center at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown.

Parents of all children coming into Pediatric Care Specialists locations in Richland, Johnstown, Ebensburg, Somerset and Alum Bank are asked screening questions about travel and symptoms of COVID-19, Dr. Jeff Cook said.

“Our schedules are definitely filled back up,” he said. “We are keeping kids up to date as much as we can.”

Immunizations and boosters required for all students include diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B and varicella – better known as chickenpox.

Those entering seventh grade are required to get boosters for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis – and a meningococcal conjugate vaccine, which also requires a booster before 12th grade.

Many of the childhood diseases were once common and inoculations were considered an expected part of growing up. But some children develop more serious reactions to these illnesses, the doctors say.

“We all know how dangerous infectious diseases can be right now,” Spencer said. “Certain people die from chickenpox. I wouldn’t want to have it in my head that my child got seriously ill from something that could have been prevented with a vaccine.”

Last year’s measles outbreaks served as a reminder of serious complications from the highly contagious disease, she said.

Cook said pertussis, better known as whooping cough, can also be serious, especially in teens. 

‘Testing and trials’ 

Both local physicians are watching the news about COVID-19 vaccine studies.

Spencer understands some people’s concerns about possible risks from any potential vaccine but stressed the importance of finding protection against the novel coronavirus that has claimed more than 500,000 lives around the world.

“It’s a scary illness,” Spencer said. “It is going to be hard because it’s a brand new vaccine. We are not going to know all the adverse effects. But I don’t want to get COVID either.

“Staying where we are isn’t an option.”

Cook was less concerned about the potential risks. The science and medical world has protocols to thoroughly test new medications before introducing them to the public, he said.

“There is no safer drug in the world than a vaccination,” Cook said. “There is no drug that has to go through the rigors of testing and trials that a vaccine does – even compared to over-the-counter medication.”

Both physicians said the organizations working on various vaccine projects include some of the best minds in the world.

Academics and safety 

Even without a COVID-19 vaccine, Cook said there is a strong argument for bringing children together in classrooms this fall. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement last week urging education leaders to set the goal of having students in school this fall.

“Schools are fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being and provide our children and adolescents with academic instruction, social and emotional skills, safety, reliable nutrition, physical/speech and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity, among other benefits,” the academy statement said.

Cook said the academy points out that children’s low risk of serious COVID-19 illness is outweighed by the benefits of attending school with other students.

“A lot of kids are at risk just being at home, as far as food security and so on,” Cook said.

“When the schools closed this spring, these kids were not having the same type of academic rigor at home that they would in the classroom.”

He admits that the situation may, however, create risk for teachers, school staff and family members.

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.

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