'The emergency phase of COVID-19 is over': Doctors' group urges Biden administration to revise guidelines for children

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WASHINGTON — A group of prominent doctors and educators has asked the Biden administration to lift pandemic-related measures that could be causing children to miss school and other activities.

“We strongly urge you to revise the CDC’s COVID-19 guidelines with regard to testing, isolation, and vaccine recommendations for children to ensure that public health policies are not doing more harm than good,” says a letter sent by Urgency of Normal — a group that has argued for a steady return to pre-pandemic behaviors — to Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the White House pandemic response team, and Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The CDC’s COVID-19 school guidelines continue to cause significant disruption to children’s education and to working parents, while providing no demonstrable public health benefit in limiting COVID-19 spread. These policies have serious unintended consequences,” the Urgency of Normal letter argues.

Students arrive at Budlong Elementary School in Chicago
Students arrive at Budlong Elementary School in Chicago in January. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

The group is led by doctors including Lucy McBride, a Washington, D.C., physician, and Vinay Prasad, an oncologist at the University of California, San Francisco. Its efforts have been criticized by some progressives, but Urgency of Normal leaders have strenuously argued that they have no political agenda.

“We are calling for an end to vaccine and testing policies that exclude children from regular life,” McBride told Yahoo News in a text message. “Our goal is to help restore confidence in the human immune system, our amazing COVID vaccines, and in public health.”

Tuesday’s letter asks the CDC to do away with mass testing of children at venues like schools and camps in favor of a test-to-treat approach that seeks to identify children who may be especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and to make sure that, if those children fall ill, they are quickly treated with effective therapeutics that have become available in recent months.

Urgency of Normal also argues that the CDC should do away with its vaccination recommendation in the hope that a more neutral federal guidance would cause vaccine mandates to fall away.

“CDC recommendations to vaccinate and boost healthy young individuals,” the letter says, “have led many schools, colleges, sports organizations, and summer programs to require up to three doses of mRNA vaccine, regardless of prior infection. Such requirements exclude unvaccinated children or those not boosted from important opportunities.”

A young child receives a vaccination
A child receives a vaccination in Needham, Mass., on Tuesday. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)

Most doctors, however, are urging childhood vaccinations. “The vaccine is safe, effective and the best way to keep our youngest children healthy and safe. We encourage parents everywhere to act to get their children vaccinated and protected as soon as possible,” Dr. Thomas Veverka of the Michigan State Medical Society said on Thursday.

Neither the CDC nor the White House responded to a Yahoo News request for comment.

"The letter and proposed policies are antithetical to the principles of public health and equity," wrote Julia Raifman, a professor of health law, policy and management at Boston University School of Public Health in an email to Yahoo News. "COVID is harmful, it has killed more than 1 million Americans and had a highly unequal toll by race, ethnicity, and income. Just like it's helpful for children and adults to stay home when they have the flu to avoid infecting others, it's important for people to stay home when they have COVID to avoid infecting others. This is especially important to avoid transmission to higher risk people. Vaccine mandates are one of the most important approaches to reducing the population harms of transmissible diseases, including COVID-19."

The letter was sent on the same day that the White House announced a push to inoculate children under the age of 5, following vaccine regulatory approval for this youngest cohort.

As of February, three-quarters of all American children had had the coronavirus at least once, before successive waves of Omicron variants further boosted immunity — though just how long infection-acquired immunity lasts is not clear, especially with the coronavirus continuing to evolve.

The school year began with masks required in schools in many Democratic-controlled regions of the country, but those mandates fell away by spring. Critics of masking celebrated when, earlier this month, New York City ended a masking requirement for children between the ages of 2 and 4 in day care and preschool settings.

Most children do not become seriously ill from the coronavirus, but proponents of safety measures point out that they can pass on the pathogen to other members of the family. An estimated 2.6% of the 73 million children in the United States have immune-compromising conditions that may make them more susceptible to the coronavirus. Their parents have worried that the rush to return to normal poses an undue risk.

Mallory Stanislawczyk sits with her daughter Olivia, 3
Mallory Stanislawczyk with her daughter Olivia, 3, while receiving a saline infusion at her Walkersville, Md., home on May 27. (Matt Roth for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

“I know everyone is fed up,” wrote Sarah Wildman, whose teenage daughter has undergone treatment for cancer, as mask mandates and other restrictions fell away throughout the spring. “I wonder whether it is unfair for me to insist others care. I am a special request. I am a problem. I like the rules. The more the world opens up, the more cornered I feel. I do not want us to return to isolation.”

Some also worry about the effects of long COVID, a poorly understood condition with a variety of possible symptoms.

Still, much of society appears to be moving on, as Tuesday’s letter encourages. “The emergency phase of COVID-19 is over,” it says. “We call upon the CDC to update current guidelines to reflect the era of endemic management in which COVID-19 infections are treated similarly to other seasonal respiratory viruses, which do not require routine testing or isolation.”


How are vaccination rates affecting the latest COVID surge? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.