WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US teachers should be required to get vaccinated against Covid-19 to protect students who are too young to be inoculated, the head of the nation's second-largest teachers' union said on Sunday (Aug 8), shifting course to back mandated shots as more children fall ill.
"The circumstances have changed," Ms Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told NBC News' Meet the Press programme. "It weighs really heavily on me that kids under 12 can't get vaccinated."
"I felt the need... to stand up and say this as a matter of personal conscience," she said.
The number of children hospitalised with Covid-19 is rising across the country, a trend health experts attribute to the Delta variant being more likely to infect children than the original Alpha strain.
Almost 90 per cent of educators and school staff are vaccinated, according to a White House statement echoed by Ms Weingarten in other television interviews last week.
Ms Becky Pringle, president of the largest US teachers' union, the National Education Association, told the New York Times last week that any vaccine mandate should be negotiated at the local level.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease official, said it was critical to surround children with vaccinated and masked people in schools and elsewhere until shots are approved for them.
"You surround them with those who can be vaccinated, whoever they are - teachers, personnel in the schools, anyone - get them vaccinated. Protect the kids with a shield of vaccinated people," he said in a separate interview on NBC, noting that paediatric hospitals are filling up with Covid-19 cases.
The United States has reported more than 100,000 new cases a day on average for the past two days, a six-month high. About 400 people a day on average are dying. Hospitalisations are the highest since last February.
The US South remains the epicentre of the latest outbreak, with Florida reporting a record of nearly 24,000 new cases on Saturday, according to data from the Centres for Disease Control and Protection.
The number of Covid-19 patients filling the state's hospitals has set records nearly every day for the past week.
"Things in Florida aren't just bad - they're epically bad,"cardiologist Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a George Washington University professor, told CNN on Sunday, noting its case rate was behind only Louisiana and Botswana. "If Florida was another country, the United States would consider banning travel from Florida... It's going to get much worse there."
Despite the surge, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has refused to mandate masks and has blocked school districts from requiring them, despite the state leading the nation in paediatric hospitalisations based on its population.
Across the country, exhausted and desperate healthcare workers are turning to social media to describe the grim reality they face.
"The first wave was heartbreaking, because there was nothing people could do except stay away from the people they love. This time, there are options," said Ms Nichole Atherton, an intensive care nurse in Mississippi.
While Florida does not report the vaccination status of new cases, other states do.
In Arizona, 89 per cent of all adult cases in July were in those not vaccinated or not fully vaccinated, according to the state health department.
In Louisiana, another hot spot, those not fully vaccinated in the last week of July made up 90 per cent of cases, 84 per cent of deaths and 90 per cent of hospitalisations, according to the state health department.