• The Star Staff

Novello: Students should be vaccinated amid COVID-19 as ‘health is a human right’

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

“Vaccinating your children is an act of love.”

Those are the words that teachers, school directors, and university professors said repeatedly to ex-U.S. Surgeon General Antonia Novello and the press during a Zoom videoconference that the VOCES Immunity and Health Promotion Coalition hosted on Tuesday to call for parents to keep their children’s vaccines up to date amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty of going back to on-site classes in mid-September.

Novello, who is also a VOCES spokeswoman, told The Star that the reason the coalition is using educators to spread awareness amid the global pandemic is an observed 50 percent reduction in vaccinations in the U.S. and Puerto Rico since the pandemic began in March. Likewise, she said teachers are saying that vaccinating is an “act of love” as it is the only way to protect children from infections that are unknown to new generations of parents in Puerto Rico.

“Vaccines are made to keep us safe from many infections, and many young parents have not seen these diseases, and they are not scared of what they can’t see. How many have seen a case of measles? How many have seen a case of whooping cough (pertussis)? Who has seen a case of pneumoconiosis? ‘If I don’t see it, I won’t have it, but I can get infected with COVID-19,’ that’s what they think,” Novello said. “Children’s health is in their parents’ hands; if they love their children, if they want to protect them, health is a [human] right and vaccination is another right the world provides for children to be healthy.”

The physician said the other reason that the coalition has collaborated with teachers was that both are obliged to check on students’ vaccine status in both public and private education systems; in doing so, they develop a connection that often substitutes for parents’ awareness.

Likewise, she also considers teachers and other school officials to be an extension of VOCES as they are capable of spreading awareness about vaccination to all children.

“This will be crucial at the moment we start school again; if the child comes from a family that gets along during the pandemic, they are more likely to be vaccinated than others who live with 71 aunts, where they witness fights, confront abuse from their parents, where the child’s survival [which involves having him or her vaccinated] is not prioritized,” the former surgeon general said. “That is why we used teachers, who are in charge of ensuring that these children are vaccinated, to deliver that call to action; if not, we will waste even more time than before. They’ll be the voices of VOCES, as they are a part of my external group that spreads the message of the importance of vaccinating every child.”

When The Star asked if it was viable for students to start on-site classes on Sept. 15 as Puerto Rico has experienced spikes in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are occurring at an alarming rate, Novello said that although the U.S. Department of Education has advocated opening up schools to promote socialization and create safe spaces for students, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a set of guidelines for reopening schools while keeping infection rates low, for COVID-19, it would mean nothing.

“Even if we had a COVID-19 vaccine available, what would happen if we do not prevent other infections for which vaccines are available as a pre-emptive measure? We have to begin with the most important detail, that infection rates inside schools remain low, which would be less than 5 percent. In Puerto Rico, according to the Medical Task Force, the positivity rate for COVID-19 is at 10.2 percent,” she said. “As there is a great increase in positive cases, schools should only open up virtually, because, by attending on-site classes, children could infect teachers, children could infect each other, and, once they get back home, they could spread the disease to their parents and grandparents.”

The Star also asked Novello for her insight as 26 pharmaceutical corporations have released updates on vaccine trials for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and are estimating availability by December 2020. The public health expert said some six to 12 corporations are in a second trial as some are waiting for results from around 30,000 subjects to develop antibodies against the infection. If the subjects develop enough antibodies, the companies will start developing vaccines to build a worldwide supply; however, this is a lengthy process as the government is expected to invest in in-depth research and the federal Food and Drug Administration must determine a vaccine’s efficacy and safety in order to start manufacturing, consumer education, distribution, and cost determinations.

“Even if the vaccine is proved to work in December, we have to wait for all these other phases. We could have access to vaccines around January or February 2021,” she said. “Vaccines from Pfizer and Astra Zeneca have shown positive results, and another one called Moderna is still in the second phase as they have vaccinated around 30,000 people in the United States since July 27; both vaccines from Moderna and Astra Zeneca are ahead in their experimentation phase.”

However, when The Star asked if there was a COVID-19 vaccine available at the moment, how they would handle naysayers (commonly known as “anti-vaxxers”) as misinformation on social media platforms has already developed resistance against vaccination, Novello said she is convinced it is difficult to change some people’s opinions. But, she said, as long as 90-95 percent of the population receive their vaccines, a herd immunity develops, which is enough to keep any infection controlled. She added that VOCES is having discussions with experts from different fields to raise awareness on vaccination.

“People think getting vaccinated is just to be able to go to school; no, vaccines are made to live a disease-free life that we haven’t seen in years,” Novello said. “I can’t convince anyone who’s blind to the truth.”

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