Preparations are well underway for another school year as teachers, administrators, staff, students, and parents look forward to getting closer to normalcy. In some parts of the country, students will be returning to in-person learning for the first time in more than a year.
An important part of the back-to-school routine is having each child’s immunization records up to date. Of course, COVID-19 vaccination has added a new and sometimes confusing wrinkle to this process, especially for parents of children with cancer.
August is National Immunization Awareness Month. Understanding current vaccine eligibility and requirements will help parents of children and teens with pediatric cancer navigate their decision-making process.
The Current COVID-19 Vaccine Landscape
As of this writing, every person aged 12 and older is eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. People must be 18 years or older to receive the Moderna or the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The CDC recommended that the use of Johnson & Johnson vaccines resume in April 2021, after reports of complications caused a temporary pause. These reports involved rare cases of women under age 50 who had blood clots and low platelets counts after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Studies of COVID-19 vaccines in children younger than age 12 are now in motion, and vaccinations in this age-group could begin later this year, if the vaccines are deemed safe and effective for this population.
Concerns of Parents of Adolescents and Young Adults with Cancer
For parents of adolescents and young adults with cancer or cancer survivors, the decision to have their children get the COVID-19 vaccine is not cut and dry.
Many parents have expressed concerns about children receiving the COVID-19 vaccine with other shots. The CDC has updated its guidance, however, to recommend the COVID-19 vaccine along with routine immunizations for teens and adults. This update was a result, in part, of data showing that pandemic restrictions caused teens to fall behind with their regular shots.
Currently, no state requires K-12 students to receive a COVID-19 vaccination before returning to the classroom, but many colleges and universities do require it. For more than a century, K-12 schools have had the authority to require vaccinations in the interest of public health, so new requirements could also be introduced. All states, however, allow exemptions for valid medical reasons, such as an allergy or a weakened immune system.
Requirements for COVID-19 vaccinations are likely to vary from state to state and could be challenged in court. Of course, these details only make decisions more complicated for parents of AYAs with cancer and cancer survivors.
Prioritizing Health: Understanding the Rules and Risks
Every parent needs to stay up to date on the latest requirements at the local, state, and federal level. Many colleges and universities will make their own rules. This Best Colleges list of schools that are requiring COVID-19 vaccines is being updated regularly.
As the parent of a teen or a young adult with cancer, health and safety must be the top priority. Parents should consult their oncologist to determine if there is any risk involved with the vaccine and, if so, whether the risk of receiving the vaccine outweighs the risk of not receiving it. Find out if the COVID-19 vaccine should be spaced out with other vaccines, and check for updates of the CDC guidance.
The level of risk could also be affected by each school’s requirements. For example, will masks be required? Will rooms be reconfigured to enable a certain level of distancing? What are the most recent local trends with regard to coronavirus cases? These are all details to research and discuss with an oncologist.
The road back to school in 2021 is more complex than in the past. “To vaccinate or not vaccinate” can be a difficult question for families dealing with childhood cancer. As we recognize National Immunization Awareness Month, let’s focus on building awareness of the latest guidance and requirements, and using this knowledge to support parents of children with pediatric cancer.