U.S. health agency eases masking guidance for summer camps where all are vaccinated

By David Shepardson and Carl O’Donnell

(Reuters) – The top U.S. health agency on Friday relaxed guidance for mask-wearing at summer camps, saying that camps do not need to require children to wear masks or physically distance if all participants have been fully vaccinated.

The new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention settles a question that has been top of mind for the parents of tens of millions of children who attend camp each summer in the United States.

“We think the possibility of having a camp setting where everyone is fully vaccinated will be a reality by mid- to late-summer,” said Commander Erin Sauber-Schatz, a team lead at the CDC, in an interview with Reuters.

The CDC also updated guidance for unvaccinated camp attendees on wearing masks outdoors. Camps should no longer require masking outdoors in most circumstances for vaccinated or unvaccinated children, according to the new guidance.

The CDC previously required camp programs to mandate use of masks and physical distancing even for fully vaccinated teachers, staff and children. The agency has been under sharp criticism recently for being overly cautious in its masking guidelines.

The CDC still recommends that summer camps where everyone is not fully vaccinated require masks indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces. It also recommends that they employ other standard COVID-19 prevention strategies, including physical distancing, testing, and limiting attendees contact to a fixed cohort of other campers.

The more stringent recommendations apply to all summer camps that host children under 12 years old. U.S. regulators have not yet authorized a COVID-19 vaccine for that younger age group.

The CDC does not offer specific guidance for how camps should determine which attendees are fully vaccinated, Sauber-Schatz said. The agency expects that camps will work with state and local public health officials to develop those procedures, she added.

Sauber-Schatz said breakthrough cases among fully vaccinated camp participants are highly unlikely.

“Based on the evidence of the effectiveness of the vaccine, we are very comfortable with the recommendations we have made,” she said.

The agency’s latest guideline revision comes after the recent authorization and rollout of Pfizer/BioNTech, vaccine for 12-15 year old’s.

The vaccine was authorized for the younger age group earlier in May and the country has since vaccinated nearly 59% of Americans over the age of 12, according to latest data from the CDC.

Earlier this month, it said fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks outdoors and can avoid wearing them indoors in most places but stuck to more conservative guidelines for schools as children below 12 will not get their shots yet.

The agency previously recommended all children and staff should wear makers at all times except when eating, drinking or swimming.

Speaking on the CDC’s annual budget before a House subcommittee, Director Rochelle Walensky said changing guidance quickly as more information becomes available has been a challenge.

“This is complex. And as we change things, things that we knew a year ago are different now because we have much more information and they continue to evolve,” she said.

She added that it is better for children to be outside than inside. “My own kids were home from camp last summer, and I want camps to be open this summer.”

(Reporting by David Shepherdson in Washington and Carl O’Donnell in New York; additional reporting by Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Alistair Bell)

U.S. vaccinated 600,000 12-15 year old’s last week

By Carl O’Donnell

(Reuters) -The United States administered COVID-19 vaccinations to around 600,000 children ages 12 to 15 last week after regulators cleared Pfizer Inc’s and BioNTech’s shots for use in that age group, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said in a media call on Tuesday.

In total, more than 4 million people under 17 have been vaccinated in the United States so far, she added. Top U.S. infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci said he expects that by the end of 2021 the United States will have enough safety data to vaccinate children of any age.

U.S. regulators last week authorized Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for use in children as young as 12. Most states began issuing shots to children last Thursday but some, including Georgia, started sooner.

Pfizer’s shot is the first to be cleared in the United States for children 12 to 15. Vaccinating younger ages is considered important for getting children back into schools safely. U.S. President Joe Biden has asked states to make the vaccine available to younger adolescents immediately.

The vaccine has been available under an emergency use authorization to people as young as 16 in the United States since December.

Most children with COVID-19 develop only mild symptoms or no symptoms. Yet children remain at risk of becoming seriously ill, and they can spread the virus.

Widely vaccinating 12- to 18-year old’s could allow U.S. schools and summer camps to relax masking and social distancing measures suggested by the CDC.

Fauci also said on Tuesday that existing COVID-19 shots probably also protect against the new variant of the coronavirus first found in India, which has been battling the world’s biggest jump in COVID-19 infections.

(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell, additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio)

U.S. CDC panel backs COVID-19 vaccine now cleared for adolescents

By Michael Erman and Manojna Maddipatla

(Reuters) -U.S. states are set to begin using the vaccine from Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE to inoculate younger adolescents against COVID-19 after advisers to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) backed the plan in a unanimous vote on Wednesday.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday authorized the vaccine for children aged 12 to 15, offering relief to parents eager to get their children back to schools and summer camps, and the action by the CDC group is an important, but not required, final seal of federal regulatory approval.

Some states, including Georgia, Delaware and Arkansas, began offering the vaccine to younger teens on Tuesday.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which provides recommendations to the CDC, voted 14-0 to back the vaccine, after reviewing trial evidence that showed no one in the 12-15 age group who received the vaccine got COVID-19, and there were no cases of Bell’s Palsy or severe allergic reactions.

Moreover, the vaccine produced robust antibody responses in the age group and showed 100% efficacy in the trial, with no cases of symptomatic COVID-19 among the fully vaccinated adolescents.

“This will provide protection for 12 to 15 year old’s,” said Dr. Henry Bernstein, a member of the advisory committee and professor of pediatrics at Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. “It will decrease transmission within their family. It will contribute to community immunity, and it allows the kids to more safely go back to camps this summer, and back for in-person school.”

About a third of all Americans have been fully-vaccinated according to the CDC data. But the pace of vaccination has slowed in the recent weeks.

The rollout of a vaccine for adolescents should help further limit the spread of the virus at a time when more contagious variants are circulating, and could shorten the road to normalcy for Americans.

“I think we should be in full school, full in-person school, in the fall,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a CNBC health summit on Tuesday.

Children have been considered by health officials as being at a lower risk for severe COVID-19, but they can still spread the virus. More than 1.5 million cases have been reported among 12- to 17-year-olds, and as more adults become vaccinated, adolescents are accounting for a higher proportion of total cases.

Adjusted for underreporting, the working group estimated 22.2 million U.S. COVID-19 infections in those aged 5 to 17.

Pfizer is running a separate trial testing the vaccine in children as young as 6-months-old, and has said it expects data on its use in 2- to 11-year-olds in September. The 2,260 participants in the 12-to-15 age group – half of whom were given placebo – were tested as an expansion of Pfizer’s more than 46,000-person trial.

The committee will hear from Pfizer about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy in adolescents and will consider the views of a handful of CDC officials on its implementation.

(Reporting by Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Caroline Humer, Peter Henderson and Bill Berkrot)