Young student caucasian girl takes off protective face mask, ready for new school year

COVID-19 Updates: New Jersey Governor Allows Mask-Free Schools, WalletHub Releases State Safety Rankings

Young student girl takes off protective face mask for new school year in New Jersey, which ranks #11 in state safety rankings for COVID-19

At least 184 million cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) have been diagnosed worldwide as of Monday evening, July 5, 2021, including at least 3.98 million deaths. Healthcare officials in the United States have reported at least 33.7 million positive COVID-19 cases and approximately 605,000 deaths. Source: Johns Hopkins University & Medicine

At least 3.22 billion individual doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered worldwide as of Monday evening, including at least 331 million in the United States. Source: GitHub

Want to learn more about COVID-19? Explore essential learning for nurses.

New Jersey governor allows schools to be mask-free

School districts in the Garden State are expected to make their own decisions when it comes to students of all ages wearing masks in Fall 2021.

Assuming that there are no new guidelines that would suggest full masking protocols be the standard at the beginning of the school year issued by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy is comfortable letting administrators decide on masking. Students would, however, be required to have masks in their possession when on school property and administrators would not be permitted to disallow mask wearing at any time among those who might want to continue to wear them.

The announcement made June 28 comes in conjunction with the state’s Department of Education and Department of Health, according to a press release from the governor’s office. The announcement also came with health and safety recommendations that provide strategies to reduce COVID-19 risks among students and staff while still prioritizing full-time, in-person learning.

These procedures include:

  • Maintaining physical distance between students to the extent practicable.
  • Desks facing in the same direction while avoiding group-seating arrangements.
  • Putting procedures in place to identify and respond to a student or staff member who becomes ill with COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Maintaining close communication with local health departments to share information and resources on COVID-19 transmission, prevention, and control measures and to establish procedures for notification and response to illness.
  • Schools should maintain transparent and ongoing communication, as appropriate, with their staff, students, and caregivers regarding school operations and health and safety information.

“The recommendations we are releasing today will provide school districts with a roadmap to bring students and staff back to safe, enriching school environments,” Murphy said in a prepared statement. “This guidance will help districts and educators develop plans to meet their students’ educational, social, emotional, and mental health needs. Our students and educators have displayed amazing resiliency during the pandemic, and I am pleased that the upcoming school year will provide a sense of normalcy that students haven’t had since March 2020.”

The decision reportedly received some pushback from parents and administrators in the state, according to a recent report by WHYY.

Financial services site releases state safety rankings

As the battle between COVID-19 vaccinations and variants continues across the United States, some states are proving to be safer than others. With the “health” of the economy also a factor in how well the country recovers, WalletHub, a financial services site that offers daily credit scoring and advice, has ranked all 50 states and the District of Columbia across five key metrics to determine which are the most healthy and unhealthy.

The five key metrics used to gather the data set for the analysis include the rates of COVID-19 transmission rate, positive testing rate, hospitalization rate, death rate, and vaccination rate.

The 10 states deemed to be the most safe are: Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Hawaii, New York, New Mexico, Alaska, and New Hampshire. The 10 most unsafe states are: West Virginia, Indiana, Montana, Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and Idaho.

Other findings include:

  • Vermont has the highest vaccination rate, followed by Hawaii and Massachusetts, while Idaho has the lowest, followed by Alabama and Wyoming.
  • There’s a tie in lowest positive testing rate between Connecticut and Massachusetts while the highest is Wyoming.
  • The lowest hospitalization rate belongs to Vermont, while the highest is in Montana.
  • The lowest death rate is in Alaska, while the highest is in Florida.
  • Connecticut has experienced the lowest transmission rate, while Arkansas has the highest.

The complete state safety rankings are available online.

Psychologists explain benefits of “vaccine lotteries”

The awarding of a $400,000 grand prize on July 4 in Maryland as part of a lottery for receiving a COVID-19 vaccine wasn’t just an example of a creative way to encourage inoculation and make someone that much wealthier.

According to psychologists, this type of incentive is clever, positive, and effective. Mental health experts quoted in a recent report by ABC gave their support to such types of approaches to programs such as VaxCash, which automatically entered vaccinated residents in the state into daily lotteries that began on May 25. Eligibility required residents to receive a vaccine in the state and be at least 18 years old. Other states including Delaware, New York, Kentucky and Ohio have hosted similar programs.

Other prizes have included concerts, pizza, and beer.

Nichole Lighthall, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Central Florida, says the realistic possibility of winning the lottery among those hesitant to get vaccinated has proven to be a worthwhile strategy, as have advertisements that promote the chance to win, which has helped to avoid a negative connotation attributed to vaccines, such as side effects.

Lighthall also said that these types of benefits also detract people from thinking about the unpleasantness of a needle prick, which has been cited as a reason to not be vaccinated.

Robert Williams, a professor in the faculty of health sciences at the University of Lethbridge and a research coordinator for the Alberta Gambling Research Institute in Canada, was quoted as saying that part of the allure for people is that winners are publicized.

A review of research published prior to the pandemic, however, did not find reliable evidence that such interventions had significant effects on vaccination rates, although past vaccination campaigns have more likely focused on children.

Boosters for Pfizer, Moderna might not be necessary

Patients who have received the COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna could have protection against the coronavirus for years and not need boosters any time soon, if the virus and its variants do not evolve much beyond their current forms, according to a new study.

The study from researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found evidence that the immune response to the vaccines is strong and potentially long-lasting. Nearly four months after the first dose, people who received the Pfizer vaccine still had germinal centers in their lymph nodes, which form as the result of natural infection or vaccination, building immune cells directed against the virus, according to a press release distributed by the university.

Vaccination with Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna also reportedly led to high levels of neutralizing antibodies that are effective against three variants of the virus, including the Beta variant from South Africa. Vaccination induced stronger antibody responses in people who had recovered from infection compared to those who had never been infected.

The study also claims that reports from Pfizer and Moderna in April that said vaccines provided at least six months of protection were based on tracking whether vaccinated people contracted COVID-19. Other studies have monitored antibody levels in the blood, but no study had examined how the immune response developed in the body, which could provide important clues to the strength and persistence of the immune response without requiring years of follow-up, according to the Washington University study.

“Germinal centers are the key to a persistent, protective immune response,” said senior author Ali Ellebedy, PhD, an associate professor of pathology and immunology, medicine, and molecular microbiology. “Germinal centers are where our immune memories are formed. The longer we have a germinal center, the stronger and more durable our immunity will be because there’s a fierce selection process happening there, and only the best immune cells survive. We found that germinal centers were still going strong 15 weeks after the vaccine’s first dose. We’re still monitoring the germinal centers, and they’re not declining; in some people, they’re still ongoing. This is truly remarkable.”

The study began once the first COVID-19 vaccine became available in mid-December 2020. Three weeks after the first dose, all participants had reportedly formed germinal centers with B cells producing antibodies that target a key virus protein. The response expanded greatly after the booster shot and then stayed high. At 15 weeks after the first dose, eight of 10 people still had detectable germinal centers containing B cells targeting the virus.

The researchers also obtained blood samples from people who received the Pfizer vaccine, including those who previously had been infected with the virus. Samples were obtained prior to the administration of each dose of the vaccine, as well as at weeks four, five, seven and 15 after the first dose.

In people without prior exposure to the virus, antibody levels rose slowly after the first dose and peaked one week after the second. People who previously had been infected already had antibodies in their blood before the first dose. Their levels increased quickly after the first dose and peaked higher than the uninfected participants’ levels, the study found.

The study did not include the vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson.

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