By Genoa Barrow | Observer Staff Writer

There was a time when Black parents would send their kids to school with their slight coughs and running noses, maintaining that they could “take them right on back to where they got them in the first place.”

That was in the land before COVID-19.

With the number of cases on the rise again and more students heading back to in-person instruction, there’s renewed concern. The Sacramento OBSERVER spoke to California Surgeon General, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris about the recent surge, preparedness, and an impending vaccine mandate for teachers. 

A lot of young people are getting sick of late and infected children are infecting those who care for them. Children under the age of 12 are still not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

“The way that the vaccine developers and the CDC and the FDA have approached vaccines has been that they start with those at greatest risk first,” Dr. Burke Harris.

“We started with adults, those 18 and over so when they did the clinical trials to approve the vaccine, it was first approved for use in adults and that focus really was because that was the group that was most vulnerable.”

Eligibility opened up to young people ages 12-15 in May, less than a month after vaccinations opened to those 16 and older. 

“We are currently in the process of doing that evaluation for the five to 11 year olds. That’s happening right now and when the CDC finishes, and the FDA is done looking at that data, then that will be the next group to determine the safety and efficacy and go before the CDC and the FDA, or emergency authorization,” Dr. Burke Harris shared.

That determination for younger kids could come in September or October, she says.

“That’s what we’re hoping and those are some of the indications that we’re hearing from the NIH (National Institutes of Health).” 

Until this week, there was no state requirement for teachers when it comes to the vaccine. Calling it “the right thing to do,” Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Wednesday that California teachers and school faculty must show proof of vaccination to their districts or submit to weekly testing. The move follows the governor’s similar action with healthcare workers.  

“California is leading by example,” the surgeon general said. “The governor has required state workers to either show proof of vaccination, or to get tested, weekly or bi weekly. We are encouraging all employers to follow suit and have a similar policy.”

With mandatory vaccinations, there is a clear goal in mind, she adds.

“We’d like to see, in all sectors, folks having the highest vaccination rate possible.”

Enforcement has been an issue thus far.

“In terms of state workers who don’t follow the policy of being vaccinated, or showing proof of vaccination or getting tested on a weekly or bi weekly basis, because it is state policy, the consequences are the same for anyone who doesn’t follow a workplace policy. So if someone is not following a workplace policy, they can be censored for that. Or ultimately, if it’s a safety related policy, there can be consequences In terms of their ability to be on the job,” she said.

Dr. Burke Harris was hesitant to say that folks could be fired, because she’s not “well versed” on the state’s policy. As a doctor, she’s more focused on the health policy and what the weekly or bi-weekly testing will look like. 

While some will argue about people’s right to choose, others wonder why it took so long for the governor to make vaccinations mandatory for these essential workers.

“The state has been very focused on encouraging and incentivizing folks to get vaccinated,” Dr. Burke Harris said.

She points to the state’s Vax To Win lottery and subsequent giveaway of $50 gift cards to those who got vaccinated. The goal with the incentives was to “engage, educate and inform,” she says, adding that it’s needed now more than ever.

“With the Delta variant being up to 60% more infectious than previous versions of COVID, what we’re seeing is that getting everyone vaccinated is the best, the fastest, the real clear path they’re getting, you know, moving through the (pandemic), and having it be safe for everyone. 

“What we’re recognizing now with Delta, is that we need more people to get vaccinated for it to be safe for people to be mingling and doing all of the regular things that folks are dealing with.

Delta isn’t the only variant.

“Part of the reason why you hear us focusing on Delta is because it is so infectious,” Dr. Burke Harris said.

“There are quite a number of variants. There are some that we call variants of interest and then others that we call variants of concern. We’re tracking all of those, but right now, our greatest focus is on Delta,” she shared.

Communities of color remain among the highest unvaccinated populations. 

“There’s a number of strategies that we use to reach our vulnerable populations,” Dr. Burke Harris said. This brings me back to when I started my clinic in Bayview Hunters Point, which is a primarily Black and brown neighborhood of San Francisco. Literally, when I started the clinic in Bayview, I went door to door. I literally went to the housing community and knocked on the door and said, ‘Hey, I’m Dr. Burke, I’m opening a clinic in the neighborhood, please, send us your kid.”

Reaching people where they are is necessary, she said.

“We have to put in the work, we have to establish the trust, we have to work with trusted messengers, we have to know that it may take longer, we have to know that it may take more effort, and we have to keep doing it until we get to the outcomes,” Dr. Burke Harris shared. 

As surgeon general, she says she’ll continue to look at the state’s vulnerable communities and continue to focus resources there. She points to efforts to make the vaccine accessible to people at everyday locations that they already frequent, like the grocery store, or at small community clinics, where staffers look like those they serve.

“You and I and everybody else are more likely to get vaccinated, when you can talk with someone that you trust, someone you know, when you trust your family doctor,” Dr. Burke Harris said.

“These are some of the things that we have been doing to increase our rates in our Black community. And, you know, we see that the numbers are coming up so that I’m very pleased. Overall, in California, we’re at about 68%, but among our African Americans in California, we are just at 50%. we still have a long ways to go, but we’re gonna keep doing it.”

The preparedness of California schools has gotten a great deal of attention lately.

“That’s something that we have put a ton of resources into. The governor, in the most recent budget, is investing over $25 billion, that’s with a ‘b,’ in federal and state funds to get school back to full in person learning. That’s Investing in ventilation systems and cleaning and disinfection, personal protective equipment testing and contact tracing, supporting additional teachers and staff,” Dr. Burke Harris said.

Attention must also be paid to supporting the mental health of students who have been out during the pandemic, she continued.

“That’s one of the things that’s in our Children’s Behavioral Health Initiative, is for school therapists and counselors, so that we aren’t just putting kids back in school and you’re worried about COVID, we’re also worried about what has the impact of this pandemic been on our kids in terms of their mental and emotional well being.”