Since the brutal closure of Illinois schools in March 2020, Dr. Ngozi Ezike has been regularly present at each of Governor JB Pritzker’s press conferences, assessing the threat of the coronavirus and telling Illinois residents what they are doing. must do to protect themselves from the virus.
Now that Illinois students are returning to classrooms and schools are settling into a post-pandemic routine, the state’s top health official has tried to reassure parents and teachers who continue to wonder if campuses can safely reopen as coronavirus cases increase.
The current school year presents new challenges for Ezike to solve. The highly contagious delta variant has been responsible for a spike in coronavirus cases across the state, Ezike said.
All school workers are expected to have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Sunday. Illinois school districts are stepping up efforts to test students while dealing with epidemics and quarantining students.
Chalkbeat asked Ezike what the state has learned so far about reopening schools, student vaccination rates, and school epidemics.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pfizer-BioNTech announced Monday that its COVID-19 vaccine is safe and shows a robust antibody response for children between the ages of 5 and 11. How does the IDPH envision a deployment to Illinois and how soon could that happen?
We are absolutely thinking about deployment while awaiting final authorization for emergency use. We are currently working with pediatricians and pediatric groups, family physicians, the various providers who would provide care to this population to develop a plan. We want everyone on board to help get these people vaccinated, as well as schools and the local health department.
Pfizer says they believe it’s safe for (children aged) 5 to 11, but there are still a few steps before it’s officially cleared. So far we’ve heard predictions that this will happen before the end of the year, we’ve heard November.
The IDPH has been tracking outbreaks in schools and potential exposures. Have there been any trends with schools and districts that have seen outbreaks?
We have reported over 200 outbreaks in schools. It might not even capture them all, as we know that ongoing epidemics are currently being managed by local health departments. They might not report the information into the outbreak system until a little later. However, the number of cases that we see in young people is very high. We haven’t seen such high numbers since peak times of the pandemic like November of last year or January of this year.
Would the IDPH be able to tell if the cases at school are due to violations of the state’s mask mandate, outbreaks related to sports games, student buses or proximity? university campuses?
For the record, the local health department told us there had been mask compliance issues where we saw significant outbreaks. We have certainly seen sports-related cases and epidemics, but we are currently seeing fewer sports-related epidemics than we saw last fall.
Many college campuses have higher immunization rates than our school campuses because everyone on a college campus is eligible for immunization. We don’t think there would be a direct correlation between what happens on a college campus and the school, except if they are in the same community. We know that if there are much higher levels of infection in a community, it tends to spread to a smaller community within that community, especially if there are a lot of unvaccinated people.
Do you see more cases in elementary schools than in high schools, given who is eligible for vaccines?
Yes, we are seeing more and more cases in the younger groups when we look at the outbreaks. I think 20% of reported outbreaks are in high school, which means 80% are in elementary and middle school. We have seen an increasing number of cases in the lower pediatric population.
If cases continue to increase due to the highly contagious delta variant, do you think schools will have to revert to distance learning during this year? Especially for younger students who are not eligible for vaccines.
Even in these difficult and divided times, I think one thing everyone agrees on is that we want children to go to school for in-person learning. To help promote in-person learning as much as possible, this requires vaccination, masking, and testing.
Do you think school districts should impose tests on students?
We absolutely know that there is a trio of effort that is required, the testing being very critical. We have made the tests available to all of our public schools. Since last year, we’ve been calling and knocking on doors to set up this testing program. The schools that welcomed us on this, they are in great shape now. Now we are seeing a lot more schools trying to take advantage.
What is the public health department doing to speed up testing in schools?
We offer free testing to all schools outside of Chicago and fund the cost. In addition to testing, we continued to reach out to school districts to help establish immunization clinics. We are pressing all the levers, whether it is testing or helping people get vaccinated.
Vaccination rates among 12 to 17-year-olds started off strong but appeared to level off. What is the state doing to promote vaccination among adolescents? Can he do more? What role do schools play here?
We know that 50% of 12-17 year olds in Illinois are fully immunized. That number rises to almost 87% if you see people who have at least received their first dose. We know that about 10,000 people are vaccinated in the state every day with their first dose and that about 12% of those people are between the ages of 12 and 17. As a result, 1,100 to 1,200 children are vaccinated every day.
We continue to work with our schools and pediatricians to make sure they push it as children always go to the doctor for their physical exams for their sports exam or flu shots.