Even as the delta coronavirus variant has sent new infections and hospitalizations surging locally, many parents are preparing to send their children back to school for in-person learning across the region next week.

Niswonger Children’s Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Patricia Chambers said when cases fell in May and June, they were hopeful the region had rounded a corner — wary about the potential effects another virtual or significantly disrupted school year would have on children’s mental and physical health.

Unfortunately, infections and hospitalizations are again on the rise.

“Going into this winter with the staffing we have and the virology we’re seeing makes me very concerned as a doctor and as a medical executive about how we’re going to do once school starts,” Chambers said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, in guidance released earlier this month, urged all who are eligible for the vaccine to get vaccinated, and recommended universal masking regardless of vaccination status for everyone older than 2. On Tuesday, The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommended universal masking in schools regardless of vaccination status.

After the CDC’s announcement, both Johnson City and Washington County Schools said they would not require masks for students, teachers and staff, instead leaving it a voluntary decision. Local pediatricians such as Chambers are urging people to follow guidance from the AAP and speak to their doctor about getting their eligible children vaccinated.

“My heart goes out to parents. I love my children with everything that I have, and I know that almost every parent feels that way, and you just want to do the best thing for your child, and there is so much conflicting information out there that it makes it very difficult to make a good choice,” Chambers said. “I will tell you that, in the doctor world, which is where a lot of my friends are, so many doctors were first in line to sign their children, even their young children up for vaccine trials because they believe in the safety of vaccines and they want their kid to get a vaccine as soon as possible.”

Chambers said the potential risks from your child being infected with the coronavirus far outweigh the risk from getting your child vaccinated, and that she trusts the vaccine.

Chambers said she has dedicated her life to medicine, and wants to help people make the best decision for their children, urging them to go to reputable sources for information on the vaccines.

“We all want the same thing, which is our kids to be healthy, our kids to be happy, our kids to be educated — but we also need to keep in mind that we also need to not get sick,” Chambers said. “This is a delicate balancing act, and we’re all going to have to work together to get through this.”

Chambers also said it’s important people and parents understand that, while children tend to have less severe illness when infected with the coronavirus, not every child does. There have been children who became very ill after catching the virus and developing multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C, while other children with chronic health issues also dealt with severe illness.

“We did have deaths in this region in children from COVID,” Chambers said. “In addition to that, we don’t know what the long-term consequences of COVID-19 infection are.”

Dr. Alicia Wright, a Holston Medical Group pediatrician, said she’s heard from a lot of parents wanting advice on vaccinating their children, and said she thinks families should reach out to their local pediatrician to determine the best course of action.

Some things to take into account, she said, are any particular health concerns within their home and whether or not their children are doing in-person, virtual or home-schooling this year.

“I also think we have to think of this as a community, and, as a community, promoting vaccination in the community at-large makes our community safe,” said Wright, who also said she has vaccinated her own children.

“I think that our goal as our community should be to ensure the safety of our children while promoting their physical and emotional well-being with in-person learning,” Wright said.

And while much of the focus has been on school-age children, particularly those who aren’t yet eligible to receive a vaccine, college students are also prepping to return to campuses across the country.

East Tennessee State University is expecting to be fully open for the fall semester, which begins Aug. 23. ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland said on Tuesday that they’re excited to welcome students back to campus this fall, but that he is concerned about the delta variant, which has taken over as the predominant strain of the virus both locally and nationwide, leading to a resurgence in new infections and hospitalizations.

“I think we’re all concerned about what we’re seeing with the delta variant,” Noland said. “We’re going to do what we have to do to keep each other safe, but the best thing people can do is get their shots. The fact that more people in Washington County, Sullivan County, Carter County, Johnson County, et cetera, have not been vaccinated is the reason why the variant is moving through our region.

“The best thing we can do if we want our kids back in elementary, middle and high school, get your shots,” he continued.

“If you want to be back on campus, get your shots. The university is running multiple vaccination clinics throughout the summer and into the fall. We’ll continue to do that as we get into the fall semester. We are not in a position in which we can require the vaccine, but we are strongly, strongly, strongly, strongly encouraging everyone to get vaccinated.”

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