Las Vegas Sun

January 24, 2022

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Omicron threat drives a sense of urgency to get children in Las Vegas vaccinated

First Day of School at New School

Yasmina Chavez

Students wearing masks line up in August at Hannah Marie Brown Elementary School in Henderson. The new omicron variant of the coronavirus, which appears to be infecting children more than past variants, has renewed calls by local, state and national health officials for eligible children — and adults who have not yet done so — to get their COVID-19 vaccinations.

Las Vegas-area health officials would like to see more kids vaccinated against the coronavirus as the omicron variant spreads.

They would encourage the vaccine regardless of the new variant, but the threat of omicron has upped the concern because it appears to be infecting children more than past variants.

More than 20,000 Nevada children ages 5-11 had been vaccinated as of Sunday, according to state health department data. That represents about 7% of that age group’s population getting the shot in less than a month since it was approved for children ages 5-11.

Las Vegas physician Mark Ferdowsian, who treats patients of all ages at the Sunset Clinic chain around the valley, said that without knowing much about transmissibility or resistance to natural or vaccine-acquired immunity, “this makes it that much more important for children to be vaccinated, and for us to fall back into the mask mandate.”

He noted another unknown: the age group that will be most affected or how it might affect children differently from other versions of the disease.

Limited early information out of omicron epicenter Tshwane in South Africa shows that babies under the age of 2 account for 10% of total hospital admissions, according to South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

An institute official said this week that the children — who are too young to be vaccinated — have immature immune systems that put them at greater risk.

It also appears that in this early part of the wave a higher proportion of children are being admitted than they were in past surges. More details expected this week could provide more information.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a White House COVID-19 briefing Tuesday that lab tests to see whether the new variant was more dangerous than the still-prevalent delta strain would take about two more weeks.

The first case of omicron in the United States was confirmed Wednesday in a California patient who had returned recently from South Africa. The variant was first identified by scientists in South Africa on Thursday and in the last week has made its way to about 20 countries.

“New variants are a given; we need to just expect them,” said Dr. David Di John, a Las Vegas pediatrician. “The way to protect against the coronavirus in general, the best way to protect, is to get vaccinated.”

Kids generally have less severe COVID symptoms in general, but they can still be carriers of the virus. And Christmas and other winter holiday gatherings are approaching. There have been 22,358 COVID cases and three COVID deaths among Nevada children ages 10 and under, and 49,900 cases and nine deaths in Nevadans ages 10-19, according to state data.

That said, available vaccines will probably protect against new variants just as they have against other major variants, such as delta, Di John said. Omicron is different from its predecessors but not vastly different, he said.

“They still have the spike proteins and the nuclear proteins that coronavirus of this type have, so there will be these variations that will make them somewhat different,” he said. “But vaccines can induce antibodies that would still be protective.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in late October granted emergency-use authorization of the Pfizer vaccine in children ages 5-11. It has been widely available to kids in Clark County, either through private providers or the Southern Nevada Health District, since early November. (Adolescents 12 and up have been eligible for the shot since May.)

“Not everybody wants it but those that want it can get it,” Scott Black, a North Las Vegas City councilman and chairman of the SNHD Board of Health, said on Nov. 10, when the health district started vaccinating kids as young as 5 at the district’s headquarters.

Ferdowsian strongly recommended getting children vaccinated now to be in solid shape before Christmas, as the two required doses are given three weeks apart and recipients need another two weeks after the second shot to be “fully vaccinated.” He also recommended boosters for adults (boosters have not been authorized for children).

There’s no reason to panic over the newest variant, he advised, as treatments have come a long way in the nearly two years since the virus emerged, and the same proactive mitigation measures will help against any variant.

“The good news is that a virus is a virus is a virus,” Ferdowsian said. “The same rules apply: washing hands, masking in crowds … all the precautions that are applicable to the other strains of this virus are applicable to this virus as well.”

Appointments for vaccines from SNHD and its partner clinics can be made at https://covid.southernnevadahealthdistrict.org/vaccine/distribution/.