Experts agree.

Schools can offer in-person classes safely — even with the highly contagious Delta virus spreading rapidly.

Just do two things.

Get as many students and staff vaccinated as possible.

And insist the unvaccinated wear masks.

Do that and very few kids will get sick or spread the disease, according to the latest guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Only problem: Arizona schools now can’t do either of those things.

They can’t require kids to get the shots — and they can’t even require them to wear masks indoors and at potential super-spread events.

As if that’s not bad enough — vaccinate rates for other diseases like measles have dropped 50%, according to the CDC.

And mind you – that school will start up again just about when the Delta strain takes over Arizona, according to genetic analysis of the strains in circulation.

The Delta strain is roughly twice as easy to catch as the original and appears better at infecting kids.

However, it probably isn’t more likely to cause serious illness and death once you catch it.

The current vaccines not only prevent most infections with the new strains — they dramatically reduce the odds of serious disease even if you do get infected.

Despite the apparently low vaccination rates among students, districts can’t require the shots and can’t require students or staff to wear masks, thanks to a recent state law reserving decisions about mask mandates and shutdowns in the state.

The existing vaccines have “emergency” use approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Years of work on RNA vaccines against another SARS virus made it possible to develop the safe and effective Moderna and Pfizer vaccines in record time.

But because of the “emergency” use category, schools can’t require students to get the shot — yet.

Only vaccine mandates made it possible to banish childhood scourges like polio and smallpox.

Pfizer and Moderna have both asked the FDA to fully approve the shots, based on safety and efficacy data from hundreds of millions of people.

Serious side effects are extremely rare and dwarfed by the effects of the disease, even in children who are less likely to get seriously ill when infected than adults.

National studies show that Arizona’s always been one of the national hot spots of vaccine resistance — not just to COVID-19, but to the whole array of childhood vaccinations required to attend school.

The CDC’s national tracking study of vaccination rates concluded “vaccination coverage declined in all milestone age cohorts, except for birth-dose hepatitis B coverage — which is typically administered in a hospital setting.”

Only about a third of children covered by Medicaid programs like the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) were up to date on their shots, compared to about 50% of children covered by private insurance.

The researchers suspect that a decline in visits to the doctor during the pandemic has played a big role in the decline in established vaccinations.

This compounds the difficulty schools face in safely returning to in-person classes with COVID-19 cases once more on the rise as delta and other variants spread.

The delta strain already accounts for more than half of new cases nationally and perhaps a third of new cases in Arizona.

The county health department has confirmed cases involving the Delta variant locally.

Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ urged parents to get their shots and have their children ages 12 to 18 vaccinated as soon as possible to avoid a fresh outbreak from the delta strain.

“We are using it as a call to action for those who haven’t gotten vaccinated to get vaccinated,” she said at a press conference.

“No vaccine is 100%. But if everyone around you is vaccinated, that virus is not going to be able to get to you. Most of our new cases are in the unvaccinated. That’s our fear — when you have pockets of communities that are not well vaccinated, it’s going to spread a lot easier through those communities.”

In the US, new cases have increased 121% as a daily average in the past two weeks, mostly in states with low vaccination rates like Arizona. Deaths have increased by 9%, although they remain far below the January peaks.

Only 44% of Arizona residents are fully vaccinated. Navajo County’s doing a little better with 48% fully vaccinated and Apache County’s doing much better with 59% fully vaccinated.

Up until now, the focus has centered on getting older people vaccinated — since they’re much more likely to die if infected. But countries with high vaccination rates like Israel have found young people now account for a much higher share of cases — more than half in Israel — according to a report in the journal Nature.

Children are still less likely to die, but can still suffer serious illness, hospitalization and poorly understood effects that can linger for months.

Various studies have reported anywhere from 5% to 50% of children suffer lingering symptoms for months, including insomnia, fatigue, muscle pain and cold-like symptoms.

One study of 129 children aged 6-16 found up to half had multiple symptoms for months, according to the report in the journal Nature Meanwhile, the United Kingdom’s Office of National Statistics in April released figures suggesting 10% of children aged 2-11 and 13% of children 12-16 reported at least one lingering side effect five weeks after testing positive.

Doctors say that even if 10% to 15% of children have lingering side effects, it poses a major medical problem.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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