Teens jump at appointments, ahead of anticipated COVID-19 vaccine expansion

A sign for a "COVID-19 clinic" sits outside of a doorway.
The St. Louis County public health department offered free, walk-up COVID-19 vaccines at the Duluth Transportation Center May 4-5, 2021, part of a growing effort to break down barriers for people who want to get the vaccine.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Middle schoolers across Minnesota are already signing up for COVID-19 vaccine appointments, anticipating that by the end of this week, they’ll be newly eligible to take their first big step toward life as they used to know it.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use in 12- to 15-year-olds earlier this week. The authorization still needs the recommendation of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccine advisory group, which is set to meet Wednesday.

But in the meantime, for some Minnesota teens, the excitement is palpable — a momentum that many health professionals hope to sustain.

Tatyana Sanders, a freshman at Duluth’s Denfeld High School, is 15 — so she wasn't eligible to get a shot when Essentia Health held a COVID-19 vaccine clinic at her school earlier this week. But if the Pfizer vaccine gets approved for 12- to 15-year-olds on Wednesday, she said, she's 100 percent in.

"If they give the OK that I can get the vaccine, hell yeah, I’m getting it," she said.

Sanders said her mom doesn't really believe in the vaccine. But she trusts it: Some of her friends have gotten COVID-19, and she said she'll do whatever it takes to avoid getting sick.

"If I have a chance not to catch COVID, then I would totally take that chance,” she said. “Because I haven’t gotten it yet, and I don’t want it."

Person wearing tie-dye mask.
Tatyana Sanders received some new masks during a free distribution event organized by the Duluth NAACP last May.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News file 2020

She’s not alone.

On Tuesday, Duluth’s St. Luke's Hospital began taking calls for vaccine appointments for teenagers, for appointments starting Thursday morning. Over the course of about six hours, the hospital had scheduled about 150 young people.

"The phones are kind of ringing off the hook," said Kelly Zapp, who leads the hospital’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic.

Parents, too, she said, have been waiting for this: "So that [their teens] can be safe for the summertime, so that they can enjoy the sports and outdoors and go and see their families again," she said.

Fifteen-year-old Edie Robinson made a vaccine appointment for Thursday evening at St. Luke's, in anticipation of the vaccine's approval.

"I'm so, so excited,” she said. “So many emotions.”

A big part of that emotion, she said, is just getting back to some sense of normalcy — “one step closer to herd immunity.”

“This is just a small step towards that," she said.

Overall, 60 percent of currently eligible Minnesotans — people 16 and older — have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in the state. But the pace of vaccination has slowed significantly over the past couple weeks. Offering vaccines to 12- to 15-year-olds could help boost the state's vaccination numbers.

Still, many parents and guardians aren't sold on the vaccine for their teenagers quite yet. According to a recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a quarter of those parents and guardians say they will wait a while to see how the vaccine is working, before signing their teenager up. Nearly as many say they have no intention of getting their child vaccinated.

Dr. Nathan Chomilo, a pediatrician and the vaccine equity director for the state health department, said one of his primary messages to parents and guardians is that some teenagers do get really sick from COVID-19.

"I've seen kids in my practice, for instance, who have not been able to do some of the things like downhill skiing or play on their sports teams, like they were before they got COVID-19,” he said. “And this is months after their infection."

As more and more older adults have gotten vaccinated, virus transmission has grown in younger groups. Chomilo reminds his patients’ guardians that kids now make up just under 20 percent of COVID-19 cases statewide since the pandemic began.

"There is a real risk of their child getting it just with normal activities, particularly as we're trying to get more and more out and back to normal,” he said. “And so the risk of getting COVID, and getting sick and having complications is so much higher than the risk of any adverse events from vaccines."

Chomilo said it’s critical that health care professionals be prepared to answer questions about the vaccine. And he says we have to break down barriers to make it easily available to everyone who wants it.

"I do think that we're at a point with the vaccine strategy that we need to get creative,” said Patsy Stinchfield, a pediatric nurse practitioner who oversees vaccination for Children’s Minnesota. “We need to reach adolescents and young adults where they are. We need to make it accessible going to their work, going to venues where they may be gathering."

Stinchfield is also a liaison member of the CDC board — the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices — that will vote on the vaccine on Wednesday.

She said if the advisory committee recommends the vaccine for use in younger teens, Children's and other health care providers will plan to host school-based clinics in the next couple weeks.

In Duluth, Jill Doberstein, a community outreach manager for Essentia Health, said she already has four clinics scheduled for area schools next week at which the vaccine will be available for anyone 12 and older.

“Knowing that schools are out the beginning of June, we really want to make sure we can get a first and second dose inside the school before kids head home for the summer.”


COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

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