The leaves are changing color, and with that we change seasons. That typically signifies new beginnings, but even with coronavirus infection rates falling across the city, there are still fears another surge could be on the horizon.
Thousands of students and city school employees have tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 since mid-September, according to the city’s education department. In the greater Riverdale and Kingsbridge area alone, five schools were under partial lockdown as of last week after a handful of small outbreaks.
Until recently, most kids were not eligible to get a coronavirus vaccine. Yet, Gov. Kathy Hochul made her stance clear the moment she stepped into her new executive role last August. Returning to a sense of normalcy requires students, as a whole, to get vaccinated. And she is not afraid to institute vaccine mandates, especially as the holidays near.
Such a mandate could come sooner rather than later now that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has provided emergency-use approval for the Pfizer vaccine for children between 5 and 11.
Nitkamon Overstreet already knows what she’ll do when it comes time for her child Jasmine — a fifth-grader at Riverdale Montessori School — to get the shot.
“I would like her to get vaccine for COVID,” Overstreet said. “It’s past two years, it’s got more research. Technology helps make the process safer for people. I don’t think on the negative side.”
Even though she feared an allergic reaction, Overstreet said she still got her two COVID-19 shots earlier this year, and is now ready for a booster shot. Having a chance to share that level of protection with her daughter helps her stress a little less about what’s been happening in the world.
“A lot of people try to ignore, but sadly for the kids they cannot choose,” Overstreet said. “And then they pass away not vaccinated at all. I heard about those.”
Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz has joined state Sen. Brad Hoylman introducing legislation last month that would mandate vaccines for all children who attend schools in New York. If passed, coronavirus shots would be added to the list of already required vaccinations needed before a student can walk into the classroom.
If it becomes law, the measure would apply to students across the board — whether they attend public or private schools, nurseries and day cares.
Vaccines are already required for students and faculty involved in high-contact sports like football, volleyball, basketball, wrestling, lacrosse and rugby.
The Dinowitz/Hoylman bill would take effect 30 days after a vaccine gains full federal approval. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved the Pfizer vaccine for younger children this past Tuesday, expanding the eligibility lift significantly from the 12 and older who are eligible to get vaccinated now.
The Biden administration says it’s already secured 28 million doses, but could fall short of providing all the dosages needed for the more than 28 million children about to become eligible for the vaccine.
“Now I understand that this legislation is going to be difficult for a lot of people,” Dinowitz said. “And I understand how difficult it’s going to be to pass this because even people who are generally pro-vaccination are nervous about the idea of their kids getting vaccinated.”
But that doesn’t negate the importance of passing it, the lawmaker said.
Saul Acosta recently got his shot after the college he does IT work for mandated vaccines not only for students, but employees like him as well. But he’s not so quick to consider doing the same for his 4-year-old son Kai if vaccinations for his age group are approved.
“It depends,” Acosta said. “He’s so young, you know? I don’t think it’d be good for the younger kids. I’m not 100 percent sure. But there is a long history of vaccines for younger kids.”
But just like with adults, there will be some children who won’t be able to get the vaccine, acknowledged Dinowitz, who is fully vaccinated himself.
“There are some kids who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons,” the Assemblyman said. “There are children who are immuno-compromised, children being treated with chemotherapy and other medical issues they may have. We want to protect them as well.”
More than 20 percent of young people younger than 17 have been fully vaccinated as of last week, according to officials, while nearly a quarter of them have received at least one dose. Bronx teens of Asian and Pacific Islander descent have the highest vaccination rate at 78 percent. while just half of Black teens have had the shot. More than 59 percent of white teens are vaccinated in the Bronx.
Any unvaccinated middle or high school students testing positive for the coronavirus are required to isolate for 10 days, continuing their classwork remotely. They can take another COVID-19 test after five days, and if that comes back negative, they can return to school a few days early.
Vaccine mandates in schools are not new. Vaccinations have been required since the mid-19th century, and now can protect from a number of ailments including measles and polio.
Dinowitz has gone head-to-head with anti-vaxxers long before anyone knew what the coronavirus was, and has fought against claims of religious exemption from getting vaccines. In fact, he already has a bill circulating with his colleagues that would prohibit any COVID-19 vaccine exemptions that are not medical.
“My own opinion is that in almost all cases, religious exemptions are a bunch of malarkey,” Dinowitz said. “But there is a very tiny — but very loud — minority that’s been the opposition on vaccinations in general.”
Dinowitz’s previous bill, A.8635, introduced in 2019 and also related to vaccines, hasn’t seen the light of day yet. The bill would require more transparency from the state’s health department in the form of an annual report disclosing the number of vaccinated students.
If the vaccine mandate is passed, Dinowitz believes parents should retain as many options as necessary for kids who may not necessarily get vaccinated right away — or at all. Especially if they’re too young, or have medical reasons.
“Certainly for kids who are not eligible to get vaccinated,” said Dinowitz. “If parents feel uncomfortable sending their child to school because they think they’re going to catch COVID, then I think they ought to have the ability for remote learning.”