Pfizer vaccine authorized by FDA for 12-15-year-olds, setting stage for new phase of campaign in Sonoma County
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized use of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine Monday for 12-15-year-olds, providing another tool in the public health campaign to make schools, families and communities safer. The authorization adds an estimated 23,300 kids to Sonoma County’s vaccine eligibility pool. Dylan Hansen is one of them, and he’ll be lining up soon.
“We will be online making an appointment as soon as it’s open,” said his mother, Jennifer Hansen. “My children all receive their vaccinations. And I think of parents who didn’t have those options. Measles, mumps, rubella, smallpox — at some point, brave parents had to step up and get these shots for their children.”
Children, of course, have long been more accustomed to immunization shots than adults. But they weren’t part of initial large-scale research into the safety and effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal agency guiding much of the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, did not immediately make them eligible.
The centers authorized the Pfizer vaccine for 16- and 17-year-olds on April 15, and Sonoma County followed suit as soon as the practice was recommended by the CDC and the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup. It will likely follow the same order for 12-15-year-olds, said Dr. Urmila Shende, the county’s vaccine chief.
The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has planned an emergency meeting for Wednesday. If the advisory committee approves Pfizer for the younger age demographic, the CDC could greenlight the age expansion as soon as this week.
The public thirst for vaccinating teens and preteens isn’t anything like the frenzy surrounding initial availability of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. People 75 and older have borne a much higher risk from the coronavirus. They have accounted for more than 60% of the COVID deaths in Sonoma County while making up less than 10% of the total population.
All along, children have appeared to transmit the virus less frequently, and are much less likely be hospitalized or die from it. But they are not entirely safe from this pathogen. Estimates of pediatric fatalities from COVID-19 in the U.S. fall between 300 and 600, which would place the virus among top 10 causes of death for children since March, 2020. Most analysts believe that’s an undercount.
Now, with older Americans getting vaccinated, schools reopening and coronavirus variants changing the science, youth account for a greater share of new cases. A year ago, children made up around 3% of the nation’s coronavirus cases. On May 3, the American Academy of Pediatrics said that share had grown to 22.4%.
In California, a year ago, children and adolescents younger than 18 represented 5% of the state’s reported COVID-19 cases, The Mercury News reported Monday. Now they account for about 18.7% of the cases.
“It’s not the fact that they haven’t had as many side effects from the virus,” Shende said. “Yes, in terms of sheer morbidity, that’s true. It’s more the fact that we’re now at a different stage of trying to contain COVID. We can’t get go complete herd immunity until we’re able to protect younger members of the population.”
The possibility of an adolescent carrying the virus without symptoms and passing it along to older contacts has always been the larger concern. It has been the major sticking point in reopening school campuses for instruction, with many teachers worried they would risk exposure — or that their students’ families would.
“Even before I was vaccinated, I felt I had the ability to protect myself,” said Genevieve Lilligren, who teaches English to seventh graders at Santa Rosa Middle School. “I knew I could position myself near an open door if that was really critical. But I had a concern about my personal children and my students.”
Lilligren has sons aged 6 and 2.
Perhaps some of her pupils’ parents had similar fears. Among her class of 37, Lilligren said, slightly more than half have opted to return to the classroom, in a modified pod of no more than 12 kids.
Lilligren supports any measure that may bring her closer to filling the classroom with boisterous middle schoolers again, rather than splitting time between a small number sitting in front of her and another 12-30 who are monitoring her instruction remotely via Zoom.
“The thing that’s hard for me, I feel like I can’t give everyone my full attention,” she said. “The kids have been very understanding, but there is some pressure I’m placing on myself, or that I perceive to be coming from parents.”