US outlines plans for vaccinating children against COVID-19

The White House initiative comes as New York City became the latest jurisdiction to mandate vaccines for employees.

The US is awaiting approval from federal agencies to begin the roll out of COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 [File: Mary Altaffer/The Associated Press]

The administration of United States President Joe Biden has outlined plans to deliver COVID-19 vaccinations to Americans ages 5 to 11 years old, pending expected approval by federal agencies in the coming weeks.

The plan announced on Wednesday will seek to swiftly vaccinate the country’s 28 million children in that age range by making the jab available at paediatricians offices, pharmacies, and possibly schools, according to the White House.

Officials said the US has attained enough doses to vaccinate that entire demographic, and would begin shipping the vaccines, as well as smaller needles designed for use on children, as soon as federal approval comes through.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the government’s leading infectious disease expert, said that recent research shows that children are as likely as adults to contract and spread the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus, but often fly under the radar because they are less likely to be symptomatic.

“If we can get the overwhelming majority of those 28 million children vaccinated, I think that would play a major role in diminishing the spread of infection in the community,” Fauci said.

At a briefing on Wednesday, officials said about 190 million Americans have been vaccinated to date, while 66 million who are over the age of 12, and thus eligible, have not gotten the jab. Unlike in many countries across the world, there is widespread access to vaccine doses in the US.

The most recent announcement came amid the Biden administration’s continued push to encourage those living in the US to get vaccinated. The White House had previously set a November 22 deadline for most federal employees to be inoculated against the coronavirus.

Biden has also announced plans to use an array of executive orders and rule-changes to require workers at hospitals that receive federal reimbursements and federal contractors to receive the jab, as well as a change to Occupational Safety and Health Administration policy to require private-sector companies with more than 100 employees to require workers to be vaccinated.

On Wednesday, Jeff Zients, the head of Biden’s coronavirus task force, said that any future mandates related to children would likely be enacted by schools and would be left to local and state authorities.

He also sought to dispel concerns that the federal employee mandates would hobble the Transit Security Administration (TSA)  and other relevant federal agencies during the busy holiday travel months, saying the agencies will have the “flexibility necessary to enforce the mandate, without impacting critical operations”.

“The bottom line is this: The requirements for federal workers and contractors will not cause disruptions to government services that people depend on,” he said.

Debate over mandates

The move to mandate vaccines by federal and some state and local authorities, as well as some public institutions and private companies, has divided opinions, particular among unions and religious groups.

The issue has also fed into a wider partisan divide over pandemic response, with many prominent Republicans saying employee mandates infringe on civil liberties and risk a worker shortage that could harm the economy.

At least 19 states currently mandate vaccines for state employees, according to the US National Academy for State Health Policy. Eight states have bans on mandating vaccines for state workers or at public schools.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott last week signed an executive order effectively banning any entity in the state from requiring vaccine mandates. A bill that would further expand that ban recently failed in the state’s legislature.

“In yet another instance of federal government overreach, the Biden Administration is now bullying many private entities into imposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates, causing workforce disruptions that threaten Texas’s continued recovery from the COVID-19 disaster,” Abbott wrote in the order.

On Tuesday, the US Supreme Court rejected a religious challenge to a requirement by the state of Maine that all healthcare workers be vaccinated. The state does not offer a religious exemption.

The country’s highest court had previously refused to block Indiana University’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement after a student challenged the policy and New York City’s mandate requiring public school teachers and employees to be vaccinated.

Local and state mandates

On Wednesday, the country’s most populous city became the latest jurisdiction to expand its vaccine mandate, requiring New York City firefighters, police officers and EMTs, among other city employees, to receive the jab by November 1 or be placed on unpaid leave. Police unions have pledged to fight the mandate.

“They need to be safe. Their families need to [be] safe,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said MSNBC’s Morning Joe programme, “but we also need to reassure all New Yorkers that if you’re working with a public employee, they’re vaccinated. Everyone’s going to be safe.”

The announcement came shortly after state-wide mandates went into effect in Washington state and Massachusetts.

In Washington, as of Tuesday, 127 state troopers have been fired for defying a vaccine mandate and another 32 have resigned or retired rather than getting vaccinated. Officials also fired prominent Washington State football coach Nick Rolovich – the state’s highest-paid employee – for refusing to get the vaccine.

In Massachusetts, a police union said at least 150 state troopers are resigning over that state’s mandate.

Source: Al Jazeera