PROVIDENCE – As children including his own begin to return to the classroom, pandemic expert Dr. Ashish Jha expresses confidence that they and their teachers and support staff can be safe – provided school districts follow what he outlined Thursday as four requirements.
◘ Vaccinations for all who are eligible
◘ Proper ventilation and related mitigation measures in buildings
◘ Regular testing
“For me this is personal,” said Jha, a resident of Newton, Mass., whose children attend public schools there. Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, serves on the Newton Public School District’s Medical Advisory Group, whose recommendations have been adopted by the district.
“The bottom line here is we can get all kids back to school safely this fall,” Jha said, provided school districts anywhere in the U.S. embrace the four requirements, which are in line with guidance from many other public-health leaders and the CDC and FDA.
But the scientist cautioned: “If we ignore the science and the data and just say, ‘let's get them back,’ it will go badly.”
During taping of this 35th episode of the “COVID: What Comes Next” podcast, available from The Providence Journal and the USA TODAY NETWORK, Jha elaborated on the four requirements.
“Kids 12 and over should be getting vaccinated and adults should have mandatory vaccinations,” Jha said. “To me, this is a no-brainer.”
Currently, only individuals age 12 and older are eligible for coronavirus disease vaccinations.
Ventilation and related mitigation measures, Jha said, are also a “no brainer.” The federal government has allocated “billions and billions of dollars” for these, Jha said, based on the science of transmission, which is unambiguous.
“This is an airborne disease,” Jha said. “I think school leaders should be losing their jobs if they have not improved ventilation because it's unconscionable 15, 16 months into a pandemic, when you have the money and the science and the data's clear for you not to do that. So ventilation improvements are a no-brainer -- including just being able to open windows.”
Third, Jha said, “is testing. We have very good data that if you do weekly testing in schools of everybody, you pick up so many infections before they've had a chance to spread that you actually dramatically lower spread in schools.”
Masking, Jha said, “is last but not least. Indoor masking especially right now where there's a surge of infections happening makes a lot of sense. Imagine we get to a point where infection numbers get really low -- I think masking could come off.
“So I really believe that masking is one part of a broader solution and [the fact that] we have somehow turned this into a political football makes no sense. We all agree: We’ve got to protect kids. No one says masking alone is going to do it, but it's part of a broader portfolio of activities that we absolutely need to have.”
On this podcast episode, Jha also discusses the growing number of corporations including CVS Health, Walgreens, Bank of America, Delta and United Airlines, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, UPS, Walmart and Walt Disney that have instituted vaccine mandates for all or some of their employees.
He singled out Goldman Sachs, the investment bank and financial services firm that is headquartered in New York City.
“If you want to go visit them in their offices in New York, you have to show proof of vaccination,” Jha said. “Goldman Sachs is not your classic kind of ‘liberal public health entity…’ They want to protect their employees. They really value their employees… Their employees are their business and they want to make sure their employees are not getting sick.’’
Jha also discussed the rising numbers of teenagers becoming sick with coronavirus disease, saying “when you live in an unvaccinated community teens, definitely spread to each other and this is not just in schools. It’s mostly out of schools, hanging out and having sleepovers…”
As for younger children, Jha said “the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that they get their infections from their parents, caregivers and older siblings.”
The dean also weighed on the Rhode Island Department of Health’s COVID modeling that indicates hospitalizations in Rhode Island will peak in October.
“In the next two months, we should expect hospitalization numbers to continue to climb and that worries me immensely for Rhode Island because when I look at what's happening in Rhode Island -- and in many other places [of the U.S.], even New England -- I worry about hospital capacity and hospitals really getting full.”
Jha also answered an audience question regarding a woman in California who contracted coronavirus disease and continues to experience pulmonary symptoms which her doctor could not explain. Jha does not give specific medical advice on the podcast, but in general, he recommends long-COVID patients reach out to leading universities with hospital affiliations.