By Dr. Rosina Franco, MD
As children, many of us who have attended school in the US likely remember getting vaccinated before the first day of class. Whether it’s a Tetanus or Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine, getting inoculated is akin to an initiation or rite of passage at the start of the academic journey.
Many, if not most, of us have little-to-no recollection about what it’s like to live with the fear of a debilitating, crippling or even deadly disease pre-COVID. That’s largely because vaccines have been so effective in fighting many virus-related illnesses.
This wasn’t the case for our grandparents, parents or even people in their 50s. As a child, my mother often recounted the story of how she lost a brother to the smallpox virus in Mexico because her family didn’t have access to a vaccine.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), although a smallpox vaccine became available in the US in the 1800s, the disease wasn’t considered “eliminated” in North America until the year 1952, and globally until the year 1980.
Losing a loved one to a disease is devastating for the whole family, impacting most those they leave behind. In the last year, we’ve all experienced a sense of loss due to COVID, with our Latinx and African-American communities most heavily impacted by the virus. And yet, these communities seem to be the most resistant to inoculation with less than 20% of people fully vaccinated in the US.
This is largely due to misinformation, questions and doubts about the safety and efficacy of vaccines. But, just like other vaccines that have proven effective over decades, COVID vaccines also offer significant protection against the virus that is decimating families. We see this in hospitalizations in the US, where more than 98% of the people currently hospitalized are those who are largely unvaccinated.
It is important to me, as a Latina physician, to help my community understand the importance and the science behind the vaccines in order to keep people safe and healthy. If we all do our part by vaccinating eligible family members and wearing masks, we will help protect our children in schools.
It’s important to note that more than 1.5 million children have lost a parent, grandparent, or caregiver due to COVID. The concern here isn’t solely about a child’s health, but that an older unvaccinated adult in the household can become sick and die.
The socioeconomic and mental health impact that losing a loved one has on a child is tremendous and cannot be discounted. We can avoid this suffering, if we follow the medical recommendations to get our loved ones vaccinated.
Fortunately, in the US, vaccines are accessible and available for families, often at no cost. As Senior Physician for the Los Angeles Unified School District, it’s my job to make sure that our students, their siblings and families, stay healthy, informed and have access to essential health care services.
The school district is rich in resources. It provides medical, mental health, dental, optometry and case management services throughout Los Angeles. In addition to 16 Wellness Centers run by federally qualified health centers and 14 school mental health clinics, many people don’t know that we have 15 district-operated and staffed medical school-based clinics for students and their younger siblings.
The clinics are dedicated to the eradication of communicable diseases via immunizations. Most offer physical exams for sports clearance and students enrolling in school, and often times give the first physical exam ever to children coming from other countries.
Three of these clinics also provide optometry services and free glasses. Most have served the community for decades at no cost to families and are staffed by District physicians, nurse practitioners, communicable disease nurses, medical assistants, optometrists, and an ophthalmologist.
To date, the district has completed two mass vaccination efforts, and will embark on another this fall for students ages 12-17. We’re also partnering with health agencies to provide COVID vaccines to our community at their locations as well as our local school sites.
Los Angeles Unified has been working fervently to put many systems in place to help keep students, employees and families safe. It’s also working closely with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
In spite of these resources, it is up to us to seek the cure and put an end to this suffering. It is up to us to protect our families and our children.
We can do this if we take the first step by getting our vaccine.
Dr. Franco is Senior Physician for Student Medical Services, in the Student Health and Human Services division of the Los Angeles Unified School District.