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WASHINGTON – The US primary school vaccination campaign is off to a good start, health officials said Wednesday, but experts say there are signs that it will be difficult to maintain the initial momentum.
About 900,000 children ages 5 to 11 will have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in their first week of funding, the White House said, giving a first glimpse into the pace of the school-age vaccination campaign.
“We got off to a very strong start,” said Jeff Zients, White House COVID-19 coordinator, during a briefing with reporters.
Final approval for the shots was given by federal agencies on November 2, with first doses on children in some locations beginning the next day.
The estimated surge in vaccinations in elementary school children is similar to an increase in May, when adolescents ages 12-15 were eligible for vaccinations.
Now nearly 20,000 pharmacies, clinics, and doctor’s offices are delivering the doses to younger children, and the von Biden government estimates that more than 900,000 of the children’s doses will be delivered by the end of Wednesday. In addition, around 700,000 first-shot appointments are planned for the next few days.
Approximately 28 million 5 to 11 year olds are now eligible for the Pfizer low dose vaccine. Children who get their first of two vaccinations by the end of next week will be fully vaccinated by Christmas.
The administration encourages schools to set up vaccination clinics locally to make it even easier for children to get vaccinations. The White House also urges schools to share information from “trusted messengers” such as doctors and public health officials to combat misinformation related to vaccines.
An initial surge in vaccination demand was expected by parents who waited for the chance to protect their younger children, especially before the holidays.
In Cabell County, West Virginia, the high demand for pediatric vaccines led local health officials to set up vaccination clinics in all of the county’s public middle schools. A spokeswoman for the county health department said there was some queues for vaccines in the first few days after the doses were approved for children ages 5-11, but things have slowed since then.
Some experts say national demand could decline in just a few weeks. They find that survey data suggests that only a fraction of parents planned to have their children injected right away, and they suspect the trend will continue like it did earlier this year, when children were 12-15 years old were entitled to injections.
In the first week after vaccines for this age group were approved in May, the number of teenagers getting a first shot rose by about 900,000, according to a federal review by the American Academy of Pediatrics. In the next week it rose even further to 1.6 million.
“There was an initial outbreak,” said Shannon Stokley of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But then the number fell steadily for months, only briefly interrupted in early August when the delta variant increased and parents were preparing to send their children back to school.
Since then, vaccinations among teenagers have dropped significantly, to just 32,000 who received their first vaccinations last week. Only about half of adolescents aged 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated, compared to 70% of adults.
Schooling aside, vaccination rates are unlikely to be as high in young children as they are in adults – or even teenagers, some experts said.
One reason for this is that COVID-19 was more dangerous for adults, especially older adults, while it caused far fewer serious illnesses and deaths in children, they noted.
“Parents may feel that it is not so bad or that they are not transmitting it in young children,” said Stokley, assistant director of the CDC’s Immunization Services Division.
However, according to CDC data, since the pandemic began, more than 2 million cases of COVID have been reported in U.S. children ages 5-11, including 66 deaths in the past year. “We will have a lot of work to do to tell parents why it is important to have children vaccinated,” she said.
Zients said efforts to vaccinate younger children are still increasing as new clinics go online. Government officials believe the number of children vaccinated will continue to rise in the coming days and weeks, he said.
“We’re just getting started,” he said.
Earlier this year, the White House set a July 4th goal – and failed – to vaccinate at least a certain percentage of US adults. Officials have not announced a similar target for children.
Dr. Lee Savio Beers, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, took the new numbers comfortably and said the rollout appeared to be largely smooth. However, she found that introducing a lower dose and different vials than older children requires more steps, and some states have been slower in making vaccines available to providers.
Initial data from some areas shows that black children lag behind whites on the first dose, which Beers says is cause for concern.
“It’s really important to make sure that the vaccine is easily available in a variety of places,” Beers said.