(NBC News) - The Biden administration hopes it can encourage more children to get vaccinated through a network of pediatricians administering back-to-school sports physicals, schools hosting "pop-up" vaccination clinics and pediatricians parachuting into PTA meetings.
They are all part of a final sprint — being announced Thursday by the White House and the Education Department — to vaccinate more children over age 12 before thousands of schools reopen amid a fourth wave of coronavirus infections, according to an administration official familiar with the plans.
In an exclusive interview, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said the federal government is doing everything it can short of mask and vaccination mandates, which he doesn't have the power to order. Officials hope that seeing the high school quarterback or volleyball players get vaccinated will influence other kids and parents, he said.
Still, Cardona said, "I'm just as worried about the politicization of this as I am about the Covid variant," referring to the more contagious delta strain. "I would hate to see this year the same level of disruption in our classrooms because of the decisions that adults make," he said.
Even as the coronavirus surges across many of parts of the Southeast, some of the same states have banned schools from mandating masks. Masks are the No. 1 strategy to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in schools, public health officials say. Those states also have among the lowest rates of vaccination. Only 26 percent of children ages 12-18 have been vaccinated in Arkansas and Oklahoma, and Arkansas is already experiencing a spike in child hospitalizations.
Nationwide, 29 percent of teens ages 12 to 15 are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rate is 44 percent for 18- to 24-year-olds, by comparison.
"I expect there will be a new, additional wave of Covid-19 cases with the opening of schools and especially among the age group of those below 12 years old," an age group that wasn't covered by any level of vaccination, said Dr. Wael Al-Delaimy, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Diego. "It is likely we will have another surge within three weeks of schools' starting, and the impact will be worst with lower community vaccination."
The American Academy of Pediatrics, or AAP, estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of children and adolescents participate in organized sports, making fall physical exams for athletes a major opportunity to vaccinate the vulnerable group. The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine and the AAP are issuing new guidance for physicals supported by 10 other medical and sports organizations, the official said. The National Parent Teacher Association is also working with the AAP to deploy pediatricians to its 22,000 member PTAs.
Finally, Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, are kicking off a "Week of Action," including at least 200 vaccination events and, separately, school vaccination clinics at schools across the country, to encourage as many vaccinations as possible as some schools are already opening their doors.