Bob Atlas is the president and CEO of the Maryland Hospital Association. On Monday, he published a message to students and their families as they contemplate a return to in-person school this fall as a new wave of COVID-19 infections due to the Delta variant is spreading.
Last week, there were 151 new COVID-19 cases among children up to the age of 19, compared to only 62 during the two prior weeks. Atlas urged anyone who can to get a vaccine to help protect students, especially those 12 and younger who are not currently eligible to get the shot.
State of Reform spoke with Atlas about the state’s return to school.
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Aaron Kunkler: Children under 12 are not eligible for vaccines, what can be done to protect them?
Bob Atlas: “We want everybody to be vaccinated. Since kids are not able to be vaccinated yet, the best way to protect them is for the people they come in contact with to be vaccinated, and that’s everybody 12 and up. We need to shield our children as best as we can, and masks are also part of the solution.”
AK: What’s happening as far as vaccine mandates?
BA: “Our governor has mandated vaccination for state employees in certain locations where they’re likely to come in contact with each other and members of the public. Any vaccination requirements in schools would actually be the purview of our county-level school districts. The state does not directly oversee the schools.
The Maryland Hospital Association is on record as supporting vaccinations for all health care workers for the reasons that apply in our hospitals both for patient safety and staff safety, but also because our people live, work, and play out in the community too. And so we certainly encourage employers everywhere to take whatever measures they deem appropriate to make sure their workforces are also vaccinated.
In Maryland we are not seeing the kind of overflow of COVID patients that is happening in other states yet. But, we are seeing a rather alarming increase since we reached a low point at the end of June. At that point we had only 100 or fewer than 100 COVID inpatients statewide. Our highest COVID census was in early January … yesterday we crossed back over 600 and unfortunately appear to be continuing an upward trend. Our hospitals do not want more COVID patients — they have plenty of business taking care of people who have all of the normal needs of health care. We want this pandemic to end, and that is a matter of eliminating possibilities for disease transmission as much as possible.”
AK: You know, we’ve been in this pandemic for a year and a half, and the latest Delta surge feels like it caught a lot of people off guard. I know myself, I figured that this was nearly over with vaccines rolling out this spring, but it’s clear that’s not the case. What do you foresee happening over the next few months and into the winter?
BA: “I’m not personally an epidemiologist but what we’re hearing from people who have the skills to look ahead suggests that there’s going to be a continued upward trend in cases into the fall, possibly peaking in October or November. As kids return to school, that increases the possibility of transmission. And as people return indoors and at the same time more vaccinations will happen, and between vaccination and some level of immunity gained by people who actually have COVID, even if relatively mild, that that should begin to turn the trend the other direction. But this is educated guesswork. Nobody really knows because as you noted we have a new variant that is now responsible for the vast majority of cases across the U.S. that only appeared on our radar screen in the spring.”
AK: Anything you’d want to say to families or students?
BA: “I think that as I understand it, in person learning is very important for educational reasons, social reasons, mental health reasons and so we want our kids to get back into the school buildings as much as possible and we want them to be as safe as possible. So for them it’s a matter of social distancing, mask wearing, not going places that are purely optional where exposure could be greater when they’re away from school for example. And for all of the people 12 and up who they may come in contact with that provide a shield by being vaccinated.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.