By Miriam Raftery and Henri Migala
View Zoom interview with Dr. Mark Sawyer, infectious disease specialist at Children's Hospital and advisor to the FDA, responding to parents' concerns: https://youtu.be/qSlSxgWUQaU
View video of protesters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=deM8NE8SWAo
October 20, 2021 (La Mesa) – Over 300 parents, teachers, staffers and students held a protest Tuesday against new mandates to require vaccines in public schools and against existing mask mandates.
Local demonstrators gathered on the Grossmont bridge over Interstate-8 in La Mesa, part of a statewide school walkout day over California’s public health mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants waved flags and held signs, slowing traffic on the freeway as some motorists honked in support.
ECM spoke with several parents regarding their concerns for their children's health, and also consulted a prominent pediatric medical expert on COVID-19 to respond to those concerns. In addition, we reached out to two East County school districts to assess the impact of the walkout on school funding and attendance.
Parents and school employees speak out; medical expert responds
Jennifer Benland (photo, right), a parent, told ECM she is “very much opposed to mandates for vaccines,” adding, “It’s a parent’s right to choice.” She claimed children are “not being affected by COVID. They’re not transmitting it.”
But according to Dr. Mark Sawyer, infectious disease specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital and advisor to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on COVID in children who spoke with ECM in a Zoom interview Monday afternoon, “The frequency of serious pediatric COVID is higher than people think. We have had a couple of hundred children hospitalized at Rady Children’s Hospital with COVID,” he told ECM in a Zoom interview after the protest. That includes 75 children in the intensive care unit and another 75 with the mysterious inflammatory syndrome known as Multi-System Inflammatory Disease (MSID)” which has potential to cause long-term damage to organ systems.
Dr. Sawyer added that children do transmit the virus to others, including vulnerable family members at home. He noted that early in the pandemic, “We thought children were less likely to transmit” but that “We’ve learned since then that they are part of the transmission cycle.”
Another protester, Bree ([photo, left), said she works for a school district in East County and did not give her last name. She held up a sign that said, “The Nazis had a phrase…It’s for your safety...familiar?”
She told ECM, “We really want to keep history from repeating itself…nothing should be mandated. If we have sovereignty over our bodies, then we should be allowed to chose without coercion or repercussions or consequences.” She claimed COVID has a “rate of 99.9% survival for ages 0-69” and does not see COVID as a “massive concern, because most people are surviving this and unfortunately there are a lot of adverse reactions happening with the vaccine since it is still experimental…”
In fact, the death rate across the U.S. is 1.2% from COVID, per U.S. Centers for Disease Control, though much higher among people who immune compromised, older, or with underlying conditions such as obesity or diabetes. Misinformation on the death rate may stem from an Instagram post which was removed for falsely claiming the survival rate from COVID-19 is over 99%; it was also flagged by Facebook as false. See fact check by Poynter.org.
Dr. Sawyer states pointedly, “You’re somewhere between 20 to 40 times more likely to end up in a hospital if you’re unvaccinated than if you’re vaccinated – and that includes children.”
Another local protester, Donovan, who declined to give his last name, attended with his son, Kellan. “It’s way too new to be put into children’s bodies,” he said, adding that he’s personally know people who ended up in an ICU unit after being vaccinated and one who died. “With kids being at so little risk from COVID, there’s no reason to put them at risk from the vaccine.”
Asked about new data from the Centers for Disease Control which indicates that unvaccinated people are 11.3 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than vaccinated individuals and 6.1 times more likely to contract COVID, Donovan responded, “I think that’s completely false. I myself had COVID and was sick for a few days…I don’t think COVID is nearly as serious or deadly as the media and everybody is making it out.”
Several protesters voiced concerns over side affects linked to some vaccines including blood clots and heart conditions. Clots have not been linked to the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. A rare type of blood clot tied to Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine may have been tied to a handful of deaths worldwide before a treatment protocol was established.
Dr. Sawyer acknowledges, “It is true that there are some very rare but serious side effects from any of the COVID vaccines…but it’s very important to keep the numbers in perspective…we’re talking about a couple of cases of severe side effects per million people getting vaccinated.” The risk of the same complications—clots and heart conditions caused by COVID-19 are many times higher, he noted. “That doesn’t even count long COVID, persistent symptoms that last for months or years, and that also happens in children.”
As for concerns that vaccines are experimental, Pfizer’s vaccine has been fully approved and is no longer considered experimental by the FDA under emergency authorization. Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, along with Pfizer, have all published results of human and animal trials, according to Reuters.
“There have been over 6 million doses of COVID vaccines given around the world and over 200 million in the U.S.,” says Dr. Sawyer. By contrast, only 6 or 7 million doses of measles vaccines are administered here each yea. “So we actually know a lot more about COVID vaccines than we do about other vaccines,” Dr. Sawyer says.
ECM also asked Dr. Sawyer about concerns raised by some parents over mask mandates and whether masks can cause any harm to children. "If we want to get rid of the pandemic once and for all, we need to keep transmission down and masks definitely do that," he said, adding that there are no harmful effects to breathing or health. "Physicians and nurses are wearing masks all day long and it's very effective," he added. "I've been wearing a mask for a year and a half -- with no medical impact. None has been documented anywhere."
According to the CA.gov website, after implementing first-in-the-nation school masking and staff vaccination measures, California became the first state to announce plans to require student vaccinations for COVID-19. Students will be required to be vaccinated for in-person learning starting the term after the FDA approves the vaccine for their grade span (7-12 and K-6).
The Pfizer vaccine is already approved for ages 12 and up; approvals for ages 6-11 are anticipated to happen soon, based on recommendations made by the FDA advisory panel awaiting full FDA authorization.
“The state already requires that students are vaccinated against viruses that cause measles, mumps, and rubella,” Governor Gavin Newsom stated. “There’s no reason why we wouldn’t do the same for COVID-19.” Newsom said the action is “about protecting our children and school staff, and keeping them in the classroom. Vaccines work. It’s why California leads the country in preventing school closures and has the lowest case rates” in the nation, the Governor noted, adding that California is also one of only two states to advance out of the CDC’s high COVID transmission category.
How the walkout impacted local school districts
Grossmont-Union High School District Director of Public Affairs Collin McGlashen told ECM via email, “Our initial numbers suggest attendance was actually up districtwide today, compared to similar days.” But he added, “Three schools experienced a dip of 5.3% or less, according to the initial figures.”
La Mesa-Spring Valley school district Superintendent David Feliciano (photo, right), in an email to ECM, said Monday, “Today’s attendance rate was about 5% below normal (about 520 more student absences than we typically see)” but added that there’s no data on how many of those were absent due to the walkout/protest.
The walkout may have cost the district state funding due to loss of average daily attendance money. ”The additional student absences translated to a loss in revenue of about $29,000 for the day,” Superintendent Feliciano said.
The district does not have a count of how many employees may have been absent due to the protest, but did have a slightly elevated number of absences, Feliciano noted. But he added,”We had coverage for all classes and bus routes. Based on conversations we had with both of our employee labor groups 9CSEA and LMSVTA) we were not anticipating a high level of employee absences.”
Superintendent Feliciano voiced this message on behalf of the district for students, teachers and staff.
“First and foremost, our hearts go out to all members of our learning community who have lost loved ones to COVID-19. We are in this together and we are here to support you. We encourage those that have concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine to reach out to a trusted health professional about their concerns.”
He added, “For those that are worried about a potential vaccine mandate, please understand that health regulations are made by health officials at the state and county level (not at the school district level). Concerns should be directed to the appropriate state and/or county official. Health regulations (such as requirements around masks, testing, quarantine, etc.) are not optional. The district is required by law to adhere to these regulations. If and when a vaccine mandate becomes law, the district will adhere to it,” the Superintendent confirmed.