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Statement in support of in-person learning and protection measures for children

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Statement in support of in-person learning and protection measures for children

Ballad Health unequivocally supports taking all appropriate measures to keep children in schools for in-person learning. We believe taking the steps strongly recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and overwhelmingly echoed by medical and scientific leaders nationally and in our region are most likely to enhance the opportunity to keep children in school.

Ballad Health supports our local school boards, and we are grateful for the hard work being done to ensure the safety and well-being of our children. Like you, Ballad Health feels a strong sense of responsibility for the people in our care. In this case, however, it is the School Board that has the statutory duty to make decisions that impact our children in school.

Ballad Health recognizes the real harm foregoing in-person learning has done to our children’s education and mental health – only 29% of third- through eighth- grade students in Tennessee tested on track for reading this year. This harm, if not corrected, might carry through their lifetime. We, therefore, feel it is imperative conditions be put in place that prevent, or at least minimize, the spread of disease in school that could ultimately lead to more absenteeism, school closures and most importantly, harm to children – particularly those who might have other conditions, which could make their outcomes uncertain.

The Delta variant poses a new threat to our children. According to the CDC:

  • The Delta variant is the dominant strain in the U.S., and by the end of July caused more than 80% of new U.S. COVID-19 infections, amounting to approximately 71,000 new cases per day.
  • The Delta variant is more transmissible than the viruses that cause Ebola, the common cold, the seasonal flu and smallpox, and it is as contagious as chickenpox.
  • Vaccination is the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning, as well as extracurricular activities and sports.
  • Due to the circulating and highly contagious Delta variant, the CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.
  • The Delta variant of COVID-19 is more contagious than the previous strains – it might cause more than two times as many infections – and it is the first known variant of COVID-19 to cause more severe illness in children.

For the first time since this pandemic began, more than 30% of the positive COVID-19 tests performed daily by Ballad Health are in children. We have three children receiving care for COVID-19 in the pediatric intensive care unit of Niswonger Children’s Hospital as of today – two of whom are on ventilators. The capacity of the pediatric intensive care unit is ten beds.

Today, Vanderbilt University Medical Center announced it is full, and it is no longer taking transfers from other hospitals. This is occurring in children’s hospitals throughout the Southeast, where vaccination rates are low. Niswonger Children’s Hospital is, therefore, on its own, without the benefit of overflow capacity at Vanderbilt. Further, adults who need quaternary levels of care might no longer have that option in the event Ballad Health’s adult beds fill up, an outcome more likely if children bring the virus home with them from crowded indoor facilities where there are no barriers from the virus. Already, Ballad Health has announced it is deferring non-emergent surgeries beginning Monday, Aug. 16, to create as much capacity as possible.

Until our community is more widely vaccinated against COVID-19 – the current 38.4% vaccination rate is, put simply, nowhere near good enough – we must rely on other measures, including masking, to limit exposure. And for children, many of whom are not yet eligible for the vaccine, masking could mean the difference between contracting a dangerous disease that takes them out of school, possibly threatening their own health and that of other children and unvaccinated adults at home.

We have lost 2,000 of our neighbors since the pandemic began, and we continue to see more die. Our nurses and doctors have given everything they can. But now, as deaths continue to mount, it weighs heavy on all of us that these deaths are fully preventable.

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