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NYC has a good plan so far for keeping kids safe as they return to the classroom: Doctor

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Dr. Susannah Hills, Pediatric Airway Surgeon and Assistant Professor of ENT at Columbia University Medical Center, joins Yahoo Finance to discuss the latest on the coronavirus pandemic.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: About a million students in New York City, the nation's largest school district, are back in the classroom today after 18 months of mostly remote learning. Now, children below the age of 12 are not eligible for vaccinations as drug companies continue their trials, meaning that schools are reliant on strict protocols. Joining me now is Dr. Susannah Hills. She is Pediatric Airway Surgeon and Assistant Professor of EMT at Columbia University Medical Center.

And, Dr. Hills, always good to see you. And I know this story is especially close to you because I believe your husband is a New York City public school teacher. So tell me how optimistic are you that New York City students will fare better than other school districts in the country where we're already seeing some schools needing to close.

SUSANNAH HILLS: Yes, it was an exciting first day back to school for my husband too. And he is really hopeful that his students will be able to stay in school this year. And I am too. I think New York City has a really good plan so far for keeping kids safe.

They're going to be really aggressive about masking and making sure everyone in these buildings are masked. They're also setting up hundreds of vaccination sites across the city for faculty, staff, students to get vaccinated. All teachers and faculty are required to be vaccinated this year. And they're required to get their vaccinations by September 27. 74% of teachers have already gotten their vaccinations.

So we're really working on surrounding all of our unvaccinated children with vaccinated adults in schools. And they've been getting HEPA filters set up in every classroom. They've got plans for requiring vaccinations for certain high risk activities like after-school sports. Students who are eligible who are participating in after-school sports will be needing to get vaccinated. So I think it's really a great plan they have moving forward. And hopefully, this is going to help keep our kids in school.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Now, when you look at other states, doctor-- Atlanta schools have had over 24,000 cases of COVID since schools reopened there. Mississippi, 29 schools have had to close already this year due to a rise in coronavirus cases. What's happening in those parts of the country? I know they have lower vaccination rates, but what are they doing differently there that is causing all these problems for those school districts?

SUSANNAH HILLS: Well, I have to believe that it's not coincidental that these high rates of exposure and COVID cases in schools are linked to the lower vaccination rates in these communities. Only about 43% of folks in Georgia are fully vaccinated, only slightly less than 41% of folks in Mississippi are fully vaccinated compared with the national average now that's approaching 54%. These states are a little bit behind in getting everybody who is eligible vaccinated.

That is absolutely bringing exposure into the classroom. Also, states like Texas and Florida, and others-- there are others as well-- that have been struggling with allowing school boards to implement mask mandates when it's necessary when cases are high-- those states that are not allowing school boards to mask appropriately are also seeing closures. And tens of thousands of kids in Florida, for example, have already been in quarantine for that reason too. So I think it's a combination of factors, but I have to believe that vaccination rates are probably the top one.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: I want to move the conversation for a moment over to these boosters, because we got news today that there is a group of international scientists who say they now have evidence that proves that these COVID vaccine booster shots are not needed for the general public at this time. And we know just about a week from now, the Biden administration plans to roll out these boosters, at least for those who received two doses of Pfizer's vaccine, to begin offering those shots to Americans. There's a lot of confusion around this right now. What are you telling patients?

SUSANNAH HILLS: Right. Yes. So I think we will have to wait and see. I treat primarily pediatric patients, and so right now, we're not dealing with the question of the booster for the kids who have been eligible to get a vaccine. For adults, we're going to have to wait and see. Those adults who are high risk, who are immunocompromised, who have had a transplant, or who are in therapy for malignancies and undergoing chemotherapy, who have certain rheumatologic illnesses that require medications that suppress the immune system-- those folks are recommended to get a third shot for vaccination.

And that makes sense. You know, the general population will have to wait and see. And it's a complicated question, because if we're talking about giving a third dose to optimize protection for people, I believe these studies do demonstrate that there is effective coverage still with the two doses that people have gotten if they've gotten Moderna and Pfizer. We don't fully know when that efficacy really wanes.

Yes, a third dose is better from the studies that we have. But we believe the two doses are still effective. So then we have the rest of the world that is way behind in many areas in getting vaccines to their populations. India has been absolutely devastated by this virus. And right now, they've only got slightly less than 13% of their population fully vaccinated. So we also have to be focusing on the global community and getting vaccines to the global community. And I think there's some more urgency in addressing some of these global communities that have really been hard-hit with even getting people their first full vaccination series.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Right. Right. We know that has been so challenging around the world. Just bringing it back to our young folks here, doctor, as a pediatric doctor, I'm hearing that perhaps we can have a vaccine available for those ages 5 to 12 in the matter of a month or so. What are you hearing from the medical community?

SUSANNAH HILLS: Yeah, you know, the hopeful news is perhaps by Halloween. I think where we run into trouble is by laying these expectations a little bit too prematurely. We don't know yet because the applications have to be filed to the FDA and the FDA has to review the applications. So there is always the potential for needing further data, for having to overcome some road bumps along the way in terms of the FDA formally approving the vaccine for use in younger kids.

So I don't think anybody's making any promises. But right now, it looks like data will be collected, and analyzed, and set to be given to the FDA in time, potentially, for the end of October at the earliest. So we'll see. But I wouldn't be surprised if it's a little bit later, more towards the end of the year or early January. That is entirely possible.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: All right, we're going to have to wait and speak to you then. Dr. Susannah Hills of Columbia University Medical Center, thanks so much for being with us today.