ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) – Coronavirus cases are increasing among school-aged children in the Southern Tier, but experts say in-person classes may not be to blame. Last week, Elmira City Schools reported 24 cases across their elementary, middle, and high school students. Across Horseheads Schools, the district reported 12 cases with 157 students designated as direct contacts. Where are the cases coming from if it is not due to in-person instruction?
“Just because they’re school-aged does not mean that the virus is being transmitted at or during school,” Steuben County Health Director Darlene Smith said.
This spike is concerning for community members who are balancing returning to normal and stopping the spread.
“It [youth cases] represents approximately 20 percent of today’s new cases,” Chemung County Public Health Director Pete Buzzetti told 18 News.
In Steuben County, 40 of the nearly 140 cases reported on Monday were under the age of 18, which is 29 percent of the documented cases. Some blame the lack of mitigation strategies in extracurricular activities, as not all of them require distancing or masking. Buzzetti says that the most common cause of transmission is people resuming daily activities when they mistake COVID-19 symptoms for a common cold or allergies. Activities like sports bring large groups of children together and could cause an elevated risk.
“Especially the high-risk sports like football, they’re not wearing masks. They’re close together and they’re having close contact,” Smith continued.
For some outdoor sports, athletes may not have to mask up, but inside masks may be required to have a shot at stopping the spread. At Soaring Capital Soccer Club, athletes are required to put on a mask on the sideline, but not while playing. There are also health checks for indoor sessions and participation tracking in case of exposure.
“We’ve been lucky enough where a majority of our sports right now are outside. We follow New York State risk guidelines when it’s required. That’s mostly for when we are not on the field, like masking on the sidelines,” Mike Ricci, board member for Soaring Capital Soccer Club, said Wednesday.
Even dance studios are creating new protocols as participants are breathing heavily in a confined space.
“You have to be vaccinated to come to class and you have to wear masks at all times because the numbers are quite high this fall. The new rules have caused me to lose students,” Tracy Wigley, dance teacher at Corning Ballroom and Latin Dance, explained.
Mitigation strategies continue to be the best line of defense against the virus, according to Smith. She explained that masking and social distancing can only do so much.
“It starts with, with the basics of sanitizing frequently masks, social distancing certainly vaccines if the student is age-eligible for a vaccine,” Smith added.
This comes as Pfizer has submitted research to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine in children as it moves closer to seeking approval for expanded use of the shots.
The drugmaker and its partner, Germany’s BioNTech, say they expect to request emergency use authorization of their vaccine in children ages 5 to 11 “in the coming weeks.” The companies also plan to submit data to the European Medicines Agency and other regulators.
The two-shot Pfizer vaccine is currently available for those 12 and older. An estimated 100 million people in the U.S. have been fully vaccinated with it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pfizer tested a lower dose of the shots in children. The drugmaker said last week that researchers found the vaccine developed coronavirus-fighting antibody levels in children that were just as strong as those found in teenagers and young adults getting regular-strength doses.
Earlier this month, FDA chief Dr. Peter Marks told the AP that once Pfizer turns over its study results, his agency would evaluate the data “hopefully in a matter of weeks” to decide if the shots are safe and effective enough for younger kids.
Another U.S. vaccine maker, Moderna, also is studying its shots in elementary school-aged children. Results are expected later in the year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.