Teen vaccine drive turns to schools and doctors to get shots out

State and local health departments across the U.S. are setting in motion preparations for school-based clinics to help vaccinate youth against COVID-19. Vecteezy.com

As the U.S. launches a campaign to vaccinate teens against COVID-19, public-health officials are leaping into action on a new strategy designed to involve family doctors, pediatricians and schools.

Parents can bring their children to existing providers for the Pfizer Inc.-BioNTech SE shot following this week’s authorization of the vaccine for use in those ages 12 to 15. But a federal advisory board suggested Wednesday that a new family-oriented approach will help improve both access and equity.

There are almost 17 million kids that age in the U.S., or about 5.3% of the population. Now the nation will mobilize to protect that demographic.

“The push is that we now think about people as a part of a family unit, especially those that are disproportionately affected by the disease and have the lowest rates of vaccination,” said Rhea Boyd, a pediatrician in California’s Bay Area who has developed a campaign to provide Black communities with credible information about the shots.

“This is a new opportunity to re-launch our local and state vaccine efforts,” Boyd said, suggesting it will not only focus on kids but adults who have yet to be vaccinated as well. The goal should be to use community-based centers that already cater to families, such as schools, places of worship or Boys & Girls Clubs, she said.

Officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that counter to public perception, COVID-19 poses significant risks to children. The rate of cases in young kids and early teens began surpassing that of people 65 and older in early April, and hospitalizations among children aren’t falling as quickly as for those 18 and older.

COVID-19 is also estimated to have been a top-ten cause of death among adolescents in 2020, the officials said, based on fatality data from the previous year. At the same time, Black and Hispanic children have been disproportionately impacted by COVID.

Public-health experts are now encouraging states and the federal government to be proactive in ensuring there isn’t yet another gap in access and uptake, particularly as a younger group of teens and preteens gear up for the new school year ahead.

“School-based vaccinations have the benefit of reaching adolescents in their own communities,” said the CDC’s Sara Oliver during a recent meeting of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, also known as ACIP.

State and local health departments are already setting in motion preparations for school-based clinics.

Meg Sullivan, the medical director of the public health department for Mecklenburg, N.C., said she’s long been hyper-focused on the school setting. Mecklenburg County will employ messaging specifically geared toward adolescents and their parents in order to hopefully vaccinate its 60,000 12-to-15 year olds, Sullivan said.

The health department has planned a series of vaccination events this month with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public school system, and is engaging nurses who work at the schools to communicate the benefits of the shots.

In Alaska, meanwhile, some schools have already booked vaccine clinics for Thursday and Friday, said Anne Zink, chief medical officer for the state’s department of health and social services. In advance of the clinics, they’re securing parental consent. One large school district wraps up classes Thursday, so it’s considering hosting an end-of-year celebration later this month to bring students back for vaccines.

Other states are grappling with how to appropriately get parental consent without creating too many barriers, how to divvy up large quantities of shots and how to store Pfizer’s vaccine, said Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

Maine won’t require parents to be present when their children are being vaccinated. Instead, it will allow them to give consent by telephone.

The state is splitting up shipments of more than 1,000 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, the minimum order quantity, into smaller amounts, to spread out vials, and giving providers coolers with dry ice if they don’t have an ultracold freezer to store the shot.

Pediatricians, who tend to be well-versed in vaccinations and a trusted source of medical information for families, are also seen as a critical part of the next leg of distribution. The U.S. will lean on them to bolster confidence in the COVID-19 vaccines.

But pediatricians’ offices my be challenged by the need for special freezers to store the Pfizer vaccine, said Commissioner Janet Woodcock in a press briefing on Monday. They’ll need to seek out special accommodation in order to participate in the latest campaign, she said.

Michael Traister, a pediatrician who works with a private practice based in a New York City suburb on the Upper West Side, said his practice has approached the state in hopes of being able to administer the shot.

With good planning, Traister suggests, the practice could avoid wasting doses of the two-shot regimen. Since the vaccine can be stored for five days at refrigerator temperatures, scheduling appointments would be a race against time — but a worthy one.

“Most of our parents would prefer going to the pediatrician’s office rather than big centers,” Traister said.

And bringing shots into the pediatrician’s office could also help boost rates for other immunizations that have fallen during the pandemic. The CDC’s Kate Woodworth said Wednesday that COVID-19 vaccines can be co-administered with other shots, an adjustment from previous guidance that people should wait two weeks before and after getting their full regimen.

When non-COVID vaccines are given at the same time as other shots, extensive data has shown they work just as well and have similar adverse effects as when they’re administered individually, Woodworth said.

Still, Boyd suggests mass vaccination sites, pharmacies, and mobile-vaccination units will be necessary tools to reach children who don’t have a primary care physician or interact frequently with the health system.

Heather Rosenstein of Westchester County said she’s eager for her 15-year-old son Spencer to be vaccinated. Spencer started his freshman year of high school remotely, and though he’s since returned to the classroom, she sees immunization as the bridge back to some semblance of normalcy.

Rosenstein, who has received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine herself, has scouted out a few options: Her son’s school district has partnered with White Plains Hospital and the Scarsdale Volunteer Ambulance Corp to administer the shots to youth.

Whatever the path forward, she hopes it’s a quick one.

“We want Spencer to be able to see my parents, and other people who are elderly or at risk,” Rosenstein said.

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