U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (MO) held a press event at Cape Girardeau Senior High school last Wednesday to discuss COVID-19 vaccines and the importance of in-person learning.
He participated in a roundtable discussion with school administrators, teachers, Cape Mayor Bob Fox, county health officials and county commissioners. They discussed how the successful partnership between local health officials and the school has allowed the Cape Public School District to remain open, with nearly 85 percent of students attending in-person classes.
Students and teachers who tested positive for COVID-19 were sent home, he was told. Some quarantined teachers worked from home, teaching their classes virtually. Students who were quarantined took virtual classes. Some attended regular classes by Zoom; others took part in an online curriculum, working on their own until it came time to take a test by Zoom (a virtual meeting platform).
Zoom allowed students and teachers to interact with each other when they could not meet face-to-face. That interaction was considered to be important. “There is no argument. Kids do better when they meet with teachers,” he said.
Teaching in person is optimum because it offers the most interaction and feedback. It is easier for teachers to tell if students are not understanding the lesson, and then teachers can explain the lesson in other ways until it is understood.
Blunt is a big supporter of in-person learning and believes that vaccinating teachers is a way to make that happen.
He asked if every school staff member who wanted a vaccine had received one. He was told “Yes.”
The Career and Technology Center in Cape Girardeau went to virtual classes when the governor shut down the state at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they returned to in-person classes as soon as the state reopened May 18.
One issue the CTC had was that long-term care facilities (nursing homes) did not allow visitors, so CTC students who needed to perform clinicals (similar to internships) were not allowed there. Fortunately, both area hospitals needed help, and they welcomed CTC students to perform their clinicals there.
As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Service, Education and Related Agencies, Blunt led efforts to provide $47.6 billion for coronavirus vaccine and treatment development and procurement, and $8.75 billion for vaccine distribution in the five bipartisan COVID-19 relief bills signed into law last year.
A former high school teacher himself, Blunt introduced a budget amendment in February that would have incentivized school districts to get students back into the classroom after teachers have been vaccinated. The amendment was blocked by every Senate Democrat.
Blunt talked a little about the hesitancy to get vaccinated. He said before COVID-19 hit, about 25 percent of Americans were opposed to getting vaccines. By the time the COVID-19 vaccines were approved for emergency use, that number had increased to about 50 percent.
The first COVID-19 vaccines were ready for use in about nine months. Blunt said it “would have been a record” if they had been developed over two years. He said it usually takes about three years to develop a vaccine.
Because they were issued under an Emergency Use Act, the COVID-19 vaccines have not been thoroughly tested and are not approved by the FDA.
Blunt said this does not mean the vaccines are unsafe; it means there are things yet unknown. While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines appear to be 95 percent effective and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine appears to be 65 percent effective in preventing people from getting COVID-19, it is unknown how long the immunity lasts. It is also unknown if vaccinated people can pass COVID-19 along to other people.
All three vaccines appear to keep people out of hospitals. If vaccinated people get COVID-19, it is a milder version. “Nobody has gone to the hospital who has been vaccinated,” he said.
“Emergency approval does not mean it is less safe,” he added.
As more people are getting vaccinated with little or no side effects, the resistance to getting vaccinated is diminishing.
At first, there was not enough vaccine to go around. That is no longer the case. “It looks like production has caught up to the need,” Blunt said.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has announced that any adult in Missouri who wants a vaccine may now apply for one. U.S. Pres. Joe Biden has set April 19 as the deadline for the nation to make vaccines available to all adults.
COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines have had a negative impact on the mental health of Americans, Blunt noted. After three years of declining opioid deaths, 2019 was up slightly, but 2020 — when the pandemic hit — “was a lot higher,” Blunt said.
In addition, he said 50 percent of adults are now worrying about their mental health.
Blunt was appreciative of input he received during the roundtable discussion. “This is helpful to me,” he concluded.