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Dr. Catherine Ohmstede

This week, a family friend in Florida was taken by ambulance to the hospital for a non-COVID-19 related illness. They had to bypass two preferred hospitals because they were full with COVID-19 patients.

Last week I had to drive to the mountains to retrieve my daughter from summer camp, which closed abruptly due to the spread of COVID-19 from one unvaccinated counselor to other counselors.

 Another friend reached out asking how to protect his daughter. She has cystic fibrosis, a disease of the lungs that puts her at high risk of hospitalization or death from COVID-19. Her school district doesn’t require masks. She’ll wear one, but mask-wearing is most effective when the person spreading the virus is masked. She won’t truly be safe unless the other students are also masked. 

It’s time for us all to do our part to keep our friends and family safe, end this latest pandemic surge, and provide the life we want for our children: school, camp, friendships and the experiences we call life.

 What will things look like in a mask-optional school during a covid surge? According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, children exposed to COVID-19 without vaccines or masks must stay home, missing out on opportunities to learn.

One local mask-optional school that already opened had 14 positive COVID-19 cases in the first week. Because the teachers and children weren’t universally masked, 150 students and staff had to quarantine. If everyone had been vaccinated or wearing a mask, only the 14 who tested positive would have had to stay home.

 Guess what: I do not want my children to wear masks to school, either. At the beginning of July, when transmission rates were low, I was overjoyed that it looked like it would be safe for my vaccinated daughter to start high school without a mask. Now, we’re seeing a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases. One in five COVID-19 diagnoses are in children. Children’s hospitals in other states are admitting more critically ill children than at any previous time during the pandemic.

My colleagues and I have been working on the front lines of the pandemic for a year and half, and we’re exhausted. If you think you’re sick of dealing with the pandemic, imagine how those of us in health care feel about it.

The good news: The vaccine protects against severe illness from COVID-19. Some 99.5% of the deaths due to COVID-19 occur among the unvaccinated; 97% of those hospitalized are unvaccinated. We can protect children 12 and up with the vaccine and do our part to protect high-risk younger children by getting the vaccine and wearing our masks indoors until rates drop.

 A friend recently texted me: “Have you vaccinated your kids? I’m scared of the long-term effects it might have, especially given neither have hit puberty. It just seems so rushed. Am I being crazy?”  

 She isn’t crazy. Like all of us, she’s bombarded daily with conflicting information. But what is happening around us is real. Yesterday I heard a story about a friend’s high-risk dad infected with COVID-19 by his unvaccinated home health nurse. He died in the ICU. Another friend’s grandmother died when unvaccinated family members infected her. Several of my friends lost parents to COVID-19. And unvaccinated mothers of my pediatric patients have post-COVID-19 fatigue that prevents them from being able to care of their children for weeks or even months.  

Here’s what I told my friend: I get it. None of us signed up to raise children through a pandemic. This is all still new and scary. I understand that 18 months ago, none of us would have ever believed we could find ourselves in this situation. 

 But here is what we know today: Over 4 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been given with minimal side effects. Throughout history, all side effects of vaccines have presented within the first 6 weeks of vaccination.

Yes, the vaccines are new, but the mRNA technology is not. It’s been in development for over a decade. It shows the cells how to make a protein – think of it as a blueprint – that triggers an immune response. And then it disappears. There is no plausible mechanism by which an mRNA vaccine could affect fertility. The vaccines were only rolled out so quickly because scientists stopped what they were doing and were given unlimited funding. This feat occurred because we all worked together to make the planet a better place.

 My friend replied, “Now, wouldn’t it be amazing if they did that to prevent cancer?” And she took her children to get vaccinated.

You read to the end. Thank you. Just one more thing….

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 Catherine Ohmstede is a mother of two, a pediatrician at Novant Health Dilworth Pediatrics and Novant Health Children’s Institute physician leader.