Desperate Afghan parents are selling their kids to pay off debt as poverty levels deepen following Taliban takeover

A dozen Afghan people are running, one woman is holding the hand of a child.
People try to get into Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 16, 2021.

  • Some Afghan families are being forced to trade their kids to settle debts, the Wall Street Journal reported.
  • Saleha, for example, is a house cleaner who gave up her 3-year-old girl instead of paying a $550 debt.
  • Poverty is rising in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s swift takeover in August.

Some desperate Afghan parents are forced to sell their children to deal with poverty, the Wall Street Journal reported.

A house cleaner in western Afghanistan named Saleha, for example, sold her 3-year-old daughter to a man to whom she owed a $550 debt. Saleha, 40, receives 70 cents a day from her job, and her husband doesn’t work, the Journal said.

“If life continues to be this awful, I will kill my children and myself,” Saleha told the Journal. “I don’t even know what we will eat tonight.”

“I will try to find money to save my daughter’s life,” husband Abdul Wahab said.

Khalid Ahmad, the lender, told the Journal he had to accept the 3-year-old girl to settle the debt.

“I also don’t have money. They haven’t paid me back,” he said. “So there is no option but taking the daughter.”

Last month, the United Nations’ development agency said Afghanistan is heading toward “universal poverty” following the Taliban’s swift takeover of the country.

Within a year, the poverty rate in Afghanistan will hover at a whopping 97% or 98%, said Kanni Wignaraja, UNDP’s Asia-Pacific Director.

“Afghanistan pretty much faces universal poverty by the middle of next year,” Wignaraja said. “That’s where we’re heading – it’s 97-98% no matter how you work these projections.”

The Taliban took over Afghanistan following President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops from the region after two decades spent trying to rid the country of extremists. In its takeover, the Taliban renamed the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, reverting back to the same name used during the last time the regime held power, in 1996. The regime remained in power until 2001, after the US invaded Afghanistan.

After the US ousted the Taliban from power in 2001, Afghanistan made several developmental gains including the doubling of per capita income and an increase in the average number of years of education, Wignaraja said.

Over the past two decades, Afghanistan made significant economic gains that are now in danger of collapsing because of political instability. Afghanistan faces “a crush on local banking” because of the Taliban takeover, Wignaraja said. That instability is only worsened by the pandemic.

The Biden administration, in an effort to limit the Taliban’s resources, froze nearly $10 billion in reserves in the country’s central bank most of which is reportedly held by the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. The move has been criticized as misdirected and will ultimately hurt Afghans more than the Taliban, Shah Mehrabi, a senior board member of Da Afghanistan Bank, told Bloomberg.

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Parents are reportedly sneaking $250 monitors into their kids’ schools to test air quality. One company says sales have doubled.

school kids elementary school children
Parents are using guerrilla tactics to see how safe their schools are from COVID-19.

  • Parents are smuggling $100 air-quality monitors into school with their kids, NYT reports.
  • During back-to-school season, sales for one popular monitor doubled.
  • The devices can detect how well-ventilated a building is and by proxy, help inform about the risk of contracting COVID-19.

On top of masks and hand sanitizer, some parents are employing a new tactic to keep their kids safe during a pandemic-era back-to-school season: air-quality monitors.

Parents are arming their children with air-quality monitors hidden in their backpacks and pockets to gather data on CO2 levels in the school building, which can indicate whether a space is well-ventilated and reduce the child’s chance of catching COVID-19, The New York Times reported.

Aranet, a company that makes a popular CO2 monitor, told the Times that sales had doubled since the start of the school year. The company didn’t immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment. The company’s home sensor costs $250.

air quality monitoring device
One of Aranet’s air quality sensors retails for $250.

Good ventilation can be critical in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in a classroom, even if all students are masked. If classroom air isn’t well-circulated, the virus can accumulate in the air and put other students at increased risk of contracting the disease if one of their classmates is infected.

Schools have struggled with poor indoor air quality for years prior to COVID-19 and bad air quality from sources like mold and mildew has been linked to lowered test scores and learning. But during the pandemic, air quality in schools has become even more critical.

The biggest risk comes from poorly ventilated, crowded environments where people spend a lot of time. Unfortunately, that kind of perfectly describes a lot of schools,” Jeffrey Siegel, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto, told Insider’s Susie Neilson.

The air-monitoring devices, which can cost hundreds of dollars each, can provide data on CO2 levels throughout the day, as long as they’re exposed to open air, the Times reported. However, some school officials have discouraged the use of the machines, while others have dismissed parents’ findings of high CO2 concentrations in their children’s classrooms and defended the school buildings’ ventilation.

“It’s our responsibility to assure every space is safe,” Kris Munro, the superintendent of Santa Cruz City Schools, said to the Times. “Not just to have individuals coming on campus to find out: Is a specific place safe?”

But parents have defended the tactic as a way to get insight on an area they feel schools haven’t been transparent enough about and as a tool to pressure their children’s schools to make changes if ventilation isn’t satisfactory.

Read the full story about parents sneaking air quality monitors into school in The New York Times.

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The US could authorize COVID-19 vaccines for younger kids around Halloween, Pfizer’s new timeline suggests

israel kid vaccine
A boy receives the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in the Israeli city of Holon on June 21.

  • On Thursday, Pfizer asked the FDA to authorize its COVID-19 shot for kids ages 5 to 11.
  • That means kids could start getting vaccinated sometime around Halloween.
  • The FDA could authorize vaccines for kids ages 6 months to 5 years in late November, Pfizer’s timeline suggests.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Vaccines for kids have finally entered the home stretch.

Pfizer asked the Food and Drug Administration on Thursday to authorize a lower dose of its COVID-19 vaccine for kids ages 5 to 11, after data last month showed the shot was safe and effective among this age group.

The FDA could greenlight the shot for young kids until sometime around Halloween, since the data take weeks to review.

Vaccines for even younger children could be close behind. Pfizer expects to produce trial data for kids between 6 months and 5 years old as soon as this month, the company said in a press release. During an investor conference in September, Pfizer’s chief financial officer, Frank D’Amelio, said the company would likely submit that data to the FDA in early November, putting it on track for authorization in late November.

Moderna, meanwhile, expects to have data about its vaccine’s efficacy among kids ages 6 to 12 later in the fall or early this winter. Morgan Stanley analysts recently estimated that Moderna’s timeline is one or two months behind Pfizer.

Moderna data for kids 6 months and older would then be available in late 2021 or early 2022, the analysts said.

Johnson & Johnson is on a slower timeline. The company won’t start studying its vaccine among children ages 12 to 17 until later this fall at the earliest. If the shot is shown to be safe and effective among those kids, J&J could then start enrolling 2- to 11-year-olds in its trial, followed by children younger than 2. That means a single-dose shot likely won’t be available to kids until sometime in 2022.

Vaccines can reduce severe disease among young kids

coronavirus back to school kids
A mother walks her child to school on the first day of in-person classes at Baldwin Park Elementary School in Orlando, Florida, on August 21, 2020.

A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that unvaccinated adults in the US are 11 times more likely to die and 10 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19 than those who are fully vaccinated. In addition to offering kids protection, vaccinating them will probably make it harder for the virus to spread in the general population – particularly now that in-person school is in full swing.

“Our fundamental problem is we don’t have enough adults immunized right now, and we don’t have approval for the kids,” Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Insider. “Until that changes, we’re going to have ongoing transmission [at] unacceptably high rates.”

Right now, 65% of all Americans are fully vaccinated. If all 48 million children under 12 were to get vaccinated in the US, that figure would rise to nearly 80%.

Young children may receive a lower dose

children covid-19 vaccine

Since the FDA has fully approved Pfizer’s vaccine for people 16 and older, pediatricians can legally prescribe the shot for “off-label” use in young kids. But health officials have warned not to do so yet.

Children tend to develop more intense side effects after vaccines than adults, likely because their immune systems rev up quickly. So Pfizer and Moderna are each testing a lower dose of their vaccines among kids to avoid unnecessary side effects.

Pfizer’s late-stage trial indicates that the lower dose – 10 micrograms, instead of the 30 given to adults – was safe among nearly 2,300 children ages 5 to 11. The trial also demonstrated that the vaccine produced a strong antibody response among younger kids. These results were comparable to the ones observed among people ages 16 to 25, who received the standard 30 micrograms, Pfizer said.

The trial is administering an even smaller dosage, 3 micrograms, to children ages 6 months to 5 years.

Moderna is similarly comparing its standard dose (100 micrograms) with lower doses for all age groups. Children ages 2 to 12 in the trial are receiving either 50 or 100 micrograms, and kids between 6 months and 2 years are receiving either 25, 50, or 100.

This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published September 15, 2021.

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Former FDA commissioner says COVID-19 vaccine included in childhood immunization schedule is ‘inevitable’

Scott Gottlieb
FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb

Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said he thinks it’s “inevitable that the COVID-19 vaccine is going to be incorporated into the childhood immunization schedule” in an interview on CBS’s “Face The Nation” Sunday.

As Insider reported, the FDA could authorize the vaccine for younger children aged 5 to 11 by the holidays. In late August, the agency greenlit the doses for people 16 and older, and still available under emergency use authorization for kids 12 to 15, according to the FDA website.

“You’re going to see other states and local districts moving forward with their own mandates,” Gottlieb added. “And I think the right locus for decision-making around these mandates is at the local level. So, you’re going to see other states like California taking this up.”

Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a mandate requiring students to receive the shots adding to a “well-established list that currently includes 10 vaccinations.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical advisor, said he agrees with Newsom’s decision.

However, other officials, for example, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, oppose implementing vaccine mandates.

During the interview, moderator Margaret Brennan asked Gottlieb about his concerns regarding the politicization of vaccines.

“I do worry about the consequences of the moment we’re in. The fact that now vaccination is something that’s dividing us culturally and politically…I think that’s going to have broader implications than just around COVID. I worry that going forward, we’re going to see vaccination rates decline as this becomes more of a political football,” he said.

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Leaked Facebook docs show the company saw pre-teens as an ‘untapped’ audience and wanted to ‘leverage playdates,’ The Wall Street Journal reports

Mark
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

  • Documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show Facebook’s ideas to get ‘tweens’ on its platform.
  • One document suggested “leveraging playdates” to get more children using the Messenger Kids app.
  • Facebook said it was normal for social-media companies to appeal to younger people.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Facebook documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show the company agonized over how to get “tweens” – children aged between 10 and 12 – onto its platform.

In one document from 2020 viewed by The Journal, the company said tweens were a “valuable but untapped audience.”

In a document from 2019, the company considered whether it could “leverage playdates” to get more tweens on Facebook, specifically by getting them to use Messenger Kids app while hanging out with their friends, The Journal reported.

One of the documents The Journal reviewed said Facebook’s goal was “messaging primacy with US Tweens,” which it said would have the knock-on effect of “winning with Teens.”

The documents also showed the company feared it was losing to rival social-media apps Snapchat and TikTok, who were gaining in popularity among teenagers.

“Global teen penetration on FB is low, and acquisition appears to be slowing down,” one document from March 2021 noted, per The Journal.

Another document said the number of teens using Facebook every day had fallen by 19% over the past two years, according to the report.

Facebook’s researchers found that children and teens viewed the platform as a place for older people. “Facebook is for old people – old as in 40,” one 11-year-old told Facebook’s researchers, per The Journal’s report on the documents.

In a statement published on its blog, Facebook said The Journal’s report was “nothing more than an attempt to recycle previous reporting.”

“Companies that operate in a highly competitive space – including the Wall Street Journal – make efforts to appeal to younger generations. Considering that our competitors are doing the same thing, it would actually be newsworthy if Facebook didn’t do this work,” the company said.

In its statement, Facebook said the language it had used around playdates was badly worded.

“Unfortunately the language we used was an insensitive way to pose a serious question and doesn’t reflect our approach to building the app. It was part of research to better understand how families and kids were using the Messenger Kids app to improve their experiences with it,” Facebook said in the blog post.

Facebook has recently come under intense scrutiny after The Journal reported, as part of a series of articles on Facebook, that Instagram’s internal teams were aware of the platform causing body-image problems for teenage girls.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, said The Journal’s articles series contained “deliberate mischaracterizations.”

Instagram announced Monday it was pausing a project to build a version of its app specifically for tweens, called “Instagram Kids.”

Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram both have age limits on their platforms, meaning children younger than 13 aren’t supposed to use them.

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Lawmakers are going after Facebook’s development of Instagram for kids, after a report showed it knew the social media app is toxic for teen girls

instagram
Lawmakers are coming after Facebook for its Instagram for Kids project after a bombshell report from the Wall Street Journal.

  • Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are calling on Facebook to stop making Instagram for Kids.
  • They’re incensed by an investigation that showed Facebook knew Instagram usage is harming teenage girls.
  • Instagram for Kids has received backlash from parents, child safety groups, and lawmakers since it was revealed in March.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Lawmakers are renewing their push to make Facebook halt its development of a version of Instagram for children under age 13, after a Wall Street Journal investigation released Tuesday showed the company knew from internal research that the app is harmful to teen girls.

A bipartisan pair of senators leading the Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security Subcommittee, Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, said on Tuesday they’re launching a probe into Facebook’s research and its platforms’ negative impact on young people.

“We are in touch with a Facebook whistleblower and will use every resource at our disposal to investigate what Facebook knew and when they knew it,” read their joint statement. They also said the WSJ’s report “may only be the tip of the iceberg.”

Blumenthal and Blackburn wrote to CEO Mark Zuckerberg in August, asking him to release Facebook’s internal research on the “mental health and well-being concerns” its social media apps might have on children and teens. WSJ reported that Facebook responded with a six-page letter to the senators.

“When given the opportunity to come clean to us about their knowledge of Instagram’s impact on young users, Facebook provided evasive answers that were misleading and covered up clear evidence of significant harm,” wrote the senators in their Tuesday statement.

Separately, a group of Democratic lawmakers also filed a letter to Zuckerberg on Wednesday. Congresswomen Kathy Castor and Lori Trahan and Sen. Edward Markey wrote to the CEO, strongly urging him to stop the development of new platforms for kids and teens.

Facebook’s internal findings “paint a clear and devastating picture of Instagram as an app that poses significant threats to young people’s wellbeing,” the lawmakers wrote. They added that they were “deeply concerned” that Facebook “continues to fail in its obligation to protect young users.”

Castor, Trahan, and Markey first highlighted their concerns about Instagram for Kids in an April letter to Zuckerberg.

Opposition has been broiling against Instagram for Kids since it was first reported by BuzzFeed in March. Parents, child safety groups, and 44 state-attorney generals have asked Zuckerberg to cancel Instagram for Kids.

Karina Newton, Instagram’s head of public policy, responded to the WSJ investigation in a blog post on Tuesday.

“While the story focuses on a limited set of findings and casts them in a negative light, we stand by this research,” she wrote.

“Social media isn’t inherently good or bad for people. Many find it helpful one day, and problematic the next. What seems to matter most is how people use social media, and their state of mind when they use it,” Newton wrote.

Newton said Instagram has taken steps to help users protect themselves from bullying and is focusing on addressing negative body image issues that arise from social media.

Facebook did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

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A 4-year-old girl died with COVID-19 hours after showing symptoms in an extremely rare case in Texas

A group of kids wearing masks and backpacks walk toward their classrooms.
In this Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021 file photo, students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla. COVID-19 related deaths in children are extremely rare.

  • A 4-year-old girl in Texas died with COVID-19 on Tuesday just hours after showing a fever.
  • The girl’s mother, who was unvaccinated, said she now wishes she hadn’t been against the vaccine.
  • COVID-19-related deaths in children are very rare, but the Delta variant has had a greater impact on kids.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A young girl in Bacliff, Texas, died from COVID-19 this week in an extremely rare case, according to the Galveston County Health District.

Kali Cook, who was four years old, died Tuesday just hours after she first began showing symptoms, Karra Harwood, the girl’s mother, told the local outlet The Daily News. Harwood said she tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday and tried to isolate herself from her kids.

But around 2 a.m. she noticed Kali had a fever and gave her medicine to treat it. By 7 a.m., Kali had died in her sleep.

Coronavirus vaccines are not approved for use in children under 12, so Kali was unvaccinated. However, her mother, who said she had also contracted COVID-19, told The Daily News she regretted not getting vaccinated herself.

“I was one of the people that was anti, I was against it,” she said. “Now, I wish I never was.”

Harwood told the outlet her daughter Kali was “so funny and sassy” and would “rather play with worms and frogs than wear bows.”

The Galveston County Health District said Kali’s death was the youngest documented COVID-19 death in the district. It also said it did not believe she contracted COVID-19 at school.

More children are testing positive for COVID-19 as the more transmissible Delta variant causes cases to surge throughout the US. However, severe illness and death in young children is still rare.

According to a September 2 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, children made up 0.00%-0.27% of all COVID-19 deaths in the states that reported figures, while 0.00%-0.03% of all child COVID-19 cases resulted in death.

But there has been the occasional report of a child death, including a five-year-old boy who died in Georgia in July and a child under 5 who died this week in Orange County, California.

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These bittersweet photos show US troops caring for children of families desperately fleeing the Taliban

A Marine assigned to Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Crisis Response - Central Command hands a helmet to a child awaiting evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, Aug. 22, 2021
A Marine assigned to Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Crisis Response – Central Command hands a helmet to a child awaiting evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, Aug. 22, 2021.

  • A massive evacuation effort is ongoing at the Kabul airport, where thousands are being taken out of Afghanistan.
  • Amid scenes of panic and fear, the US military has released photos of its troops caring for children.
  • The evacuation operation is set to end on August 31.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US, together with its international partners, is conducting a massive evacuation operation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, where tens of thousands of people have been seeking a way out of Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban taking over the country.

Efforts to evacuate people on military aircraft and other flights have been affected by all sorts of challenges, both inside and outside the airport.

Capturing a different side of the situation, the US military has released photos that are as heartwarming as they are heartbreaking of US troops caring for children waiting to be evacuated out along with their families.

A Marine assigned to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) calms an infant during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20
A Marine assigned to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) calms an infant during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20, 2021.

The US stepped up its efforts to evacuate US citizens, along with Afghans who supported the US war effort and their families, after a sweeping Taliban offensive that captured city after city and reached Kabul on August 15.

A Marine with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) provides a meal ready-to-eat to a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20
A Marine with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) provides a meal ready-to-eat to a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20, 2021.

As the Taliban reached the capital, thousands of people rushed to the airport looking for a ride out of the country.

A Marine with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command (SPMAGTF-CR-CC) gives a high five to a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 22
A Marine with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command (SPMAGTF-CR-CC) gives a high five to a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 22, 2021.

Amid the chaos at the airport, videos emerged of people swarming US military C-17 transport planes on the runway.

Some continued to cling to the aircraft after takeoff and fell to their deaths.

A Marine with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) calms a crying toddler during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, Aug. 22, 2021.
A Marine with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) calms a crying toddler during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Afghanistan, Aug. 22, 2021.

The US military, with the support of its international partners, has since managed to create a more stable situation at the airport, where thousands of people are now being evacuated each day.

A Marine with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command (SPMAGTF-CR-CC) and a child spray water at each other during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 21
A Marine with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command (SPMAGTF-CR-CC) and a child spray water at each other during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 21, 2021.

The White House reported Tuesday morning that over the previous 24 hours, 21,600 people were evacuated from the airport.

That figure included 12,700 on US military flights and 8,900 on over 50 coalition flights, according to Voice of America.

An Airman carries a child at an Evacuation Control Checkpoint during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20
An Airman carries a child at an Evacuation Control Checkpoint during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20, 2021.

Though the situation has improved, there continue to be security issues at the airport, including an exchange of gunfire outside the gate on Monday in which an Afghan soldier was killed.

Marines assigned to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) calm infants during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20
Marines assigned to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) calm infants during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20, 2021.

Outside the gates, the Taliban has also hindered people’s efforts to reach the airport, the only way out at this point.

A Marine with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) provides fresh water to a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20
A Marine with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) provides fresh water to a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20, 2021.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Tuesday that the US is working to evacuate any American that wants to depart Afghanistan and as many at-risk Afghans as possible, but the current deadline for the end of the drawdown of American forces and the evacuation operation is August 31.

An Afghan child sleeps on the cargo floor of a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III, kept warm by the uniform of the C-17 loadmaster, during an evacuation flight from Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 15, 2021
An Afghan child sleeps on the cargo floor of a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III, kept warm by the uniform of the C-17 loadmaster, during an evacuation flight from Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 15, 2021.

The Taliban has warned that if the US attempts to carry out operations in Kabul past that deadline, there will be unspecified “consequences.”

A Marine with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command (SPMAGTF-CR-CC) calms an infant during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 21
A Marine with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command (SPMAGTF-CR-CC) calms an infant during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 21, 2021.

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An epidemiologist describes what schools need to do in order to reopen safely this fall

school covid
Lunchtime at schools presents one of the greatest COVID-19 safety challenges.

  • Brandon Guthrie is an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Washington.
  • His research concluded that vaccines and masks do work for preventing COVID-19 outbreaks at school.
  • Other strategies like plexiglass barriers and temperature checks are probably not worth the effort.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Just when schools were getting ready to reopen for the new school year, cases of COVID-19 started surging in the United States, driven in large part by the more contagious delta variant. School administrators around the country are working to bring students back into the classroom safely, while still providing kids an enriching learning environment.

As an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Washington, I have spent the past year and a half working with a group of epidemiologists and health professionals to collect, review, and evaluate the scientific evidence about COVID-19 for state and local public health agencies.

Our group concluded that vaccines and masking work well for preventing COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, but other strategies like plexiglass barriers and temperature checks are probably not worth the effort.

Read more: SCOTT GALLOWAY: Half of America has its head up its ass. It’s time for a vaccine mandate.

What works

A COVID-19 vaccine is the single most important tool for preventing COVID-19 in schools, as well as nearly everywhere else. All the vaccines currently authorized for use in the US have been shown to help prevent infections and protect against moderate and severe disease. Some variants, such as delta, may be more likely to cause breakthrough infections, but vaccinations have shown protection against symptomatic disease caused by delta.

The more people in a school who are vaccinated, the lower the risk of an outbreak in the school and the lower the likelihood that someone will develop severe disease if infections occur. COVID-19 vaccines are currently available to anyone age 12 or older, and it’s possible that at least one of the vaccines will be authorized for younger school-age children in the later months of 2021 or early in 2022.

Masks are important, too. Not everyone in a school can be or will choose to be vaccinated, and there’s also a risk of breakthrough infections, especially from the delta variant. Masks reduce the risk of an infected person’s spreading the virus and provide some protection for the wearer against becoming infected. During the past academic year, mask-wearing was shown to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in schools. Masks also don’t disrupt the school day in the way that other measures might, such as keeping students in fixed cohorts or shortening the school day for split shifts.

What probably isn’t worth the effort

Other prevention measures have had limited effectiveness in some settings but likely are not worth the cost and effort to implement in most schools.

Plexiglass barriers, common in businesses and other venues, can be expensive and do little to prevent airborne transmission in school environments. In some situations, barriers like desk shields may actually increase the risk of transmission by reducing air circulation.

Daily temperature checks and symptom screening have also not proved to be an efficient way to prevent COVID-19 in public settings. This approach misses asymptomatic cases, which are especially common among children and younger adults. Still, students, teachers, and staff should stay home until they have a negative test if they’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Other policies can reduce transmission but can be disruptive to students, like physical distancing of at least six feet or separating students into cohorts that are not permitted to mix. If students are wearing masks, and especially if most are vaccinated, these measures are unlikely to add much more protection. The CDC currently recommends three-foot spacing in schools when possible and multilayered prevention measures when not possible.

It’s also probably not worth testing everyone on a regular basis. Frequent testing is expensive, and real-world examples and mathematical models indicate that routine asymptomatic testing for COVID-19 in schools provides little additional benefit beyond widespread vaccination and masking. However, the CDC does include some asymptomatic testing in schools as one of the potential components of a layered prevention strategy.

What to do about lunch

When I talk to school administrators about reopening safely, one of the most common questions they ask me is how to run lunchtime, when students are gathered together and cannot always wear masks. Many schools included lunch during the past year without causing COVID-19 outbreaks, which suggests that lunch can be done safely.

There is little direct evidence on the risk of transmission when comparing different approaches to the lunch problem, but there are some basic guiding principles.

Students should wear masks whenever they’re not actively eating. As challenging as it is to manage a rambunctious lunchroom, shouting, singing, and loud talking spread more virus and should be discouraged, especially without masks. And good ventilation, particularly in spaces where people are eating, is important.

Students also need to keep their distance from one another while they eat. Schools may consider having more lunch periods, having children eat in their classrooms, or using other spaces in the school to reduce crowding.

Risks outside of school

The strongest driver of COVID-19 in children, teachers, and families is not school – it’s the level of community transmission.

Given what we currently know, schools can continue to operate in person without widespread transmission linked to schools. When community transmission is high, schools should take extra care to stick to their prevention strategies. But the main way to protect students is to stop the spread of COVID-19 outside of school.

What we still don’t know

It’s not clear how the rise of the delta variant will affect the return to school. People infected with delta tend to spread the virus more than those infected with other strains, and breakthrough infections from this variant can cause large outbreaks when other prevention measures are not in place. Relying on vaccinations alone to control COVID-19 does not seem to be a winning strategy.

More children are becoming infected during the delta variant surge. There have been sharp increases in July and August 2021 in the total number of children identified with infections and hospitalized for COVID-19. But the number of cases in the general population has increased, too. There has only been a modest increase in the proportion of COVID-19 cases in children relative to other age groups, and that could be due to the fact that children are an increasing share of the unvaccinated.

COVID-19 never fails to provide new surprises. Many aspects of the next school year remain unknown, but by learning from what worked and didn’t work over the past school year, we have evidence that in most situations students can safely return to school in person as long as these layered prevention measures are put in place and adhered to.

Brandon Guthrie, associate professor of global health and epidemiology, University of Washington

The Conversation
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More than 1,900 children hospitalized with COVID-19 in the US as country battles the Delta surge

children covid-19 vaccine
Children under 12 are not eligible for the vaccine, leaving them more vulnerable to the Delta variant.

  • More than 1,900 children in the US are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, reaching a record-high.
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci has described the current wave as “an outbreak of the unvaccinated.”
  • The spike in cases has re-ignited debates over vaccine and mask mandates.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The number of children in the United States hospitalized with COVID-19 has hit a record high, as the country grapples with the Delta variant.

As of Saturday, 1,902 children were hospitalized across the country, according to data from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Children now account for 2.4% of coronavirus-related hospitalizations across the country.

US officials have urged citizens to get vaccinated to protect the population against the more transmissible Delta variant. Children under 12 are not eligible for the vaccine, leaving them more vulnerable.

The latest figures come amid reports of hospitals in the South being overwhelmed, with one doctor in Mississippi warning the state’s hospital system may fail in the coming days due to the COVID-19 surge.

A pediatric hospital in Alabama said on Thursday that it was treating 22 children with COVID-19, five of which were on ventilators.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser, described the current wave as “an outbreak of the unvaccinated.”

According to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, 50.5% of people in the US are fully vaccinated, and 59.4% have received at least one dose. Millions are yet to receive one shot.

Joe Biden fell short of his goal to have 70% of adults fully vaccinated by Independence Day.

“This is not last year’s COVID. This one is worse and our children are the ones that are going to be affected by it the most,” Sally Goza, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told CNN on Saturday

The numbers of newly hospitalized COVID-19 patients aged 18 and 49 also hit record highs this week, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Reuters reported.

The spike in cases has re-ignited debates over vaccine mandates and whether children should wear masks in schools.

California has become the first state to mandate teachers and school staff to be vaccinated against or get tested regularly for, COVID-19.

Meanwhile, schools in Florida, Texas, and Arizona have mandated that students wear masks in schools in defiance of Republican state governors who banned such rules.

Becky Pringle, the president of the country’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, said she supported mandatory vaccination for its members.

“Our students under 12 can’t get vaccinated. It’s our responsibility to keep them safe. Keeping them safe means that everyone who can be vaccinated should be vaccinated,” Pringle told CNN.

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