Teens move to forefront of MN's COVID-19 vaccination effort

A student looks away as a health care worker administers a vaccine.
Thomas Kroll, a sophomore at Duluth East High School, gets his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine during a clinic at the school on May 6.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

The race is on to vaccinate thousands of teenagers across Minnesota, after federal health advisers authorized Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for use in children ages 12 and older Wednesday afternoon.

The decision means that the roughly 300,000 12- through 15-year-olds in the state are now eligible to get vaccinated, at a time when Minnesota’s overall vaccination rate has begun to slow dramatically.

The upheavals that COVID-19 brought with it have been especially challenging for teenagers: School has jumped among virtual, hybrid and in-person models. Sports and other activities have been disrupted. It's been hard to hang out with friends and make connections.

"School has definitely been tougher,” said Hanna Bittner, a junior at Duluth East High School, where she's a member of the dance team. “It’s not as nice not being able to see my friends, hang out with my team, having that social interaction."

A paper sign taped to a wall says "2 shots + 2 weeks = fully vaccinated."
Signs at Denfeld High School in Duluth encourage students to get a COVID-19 vaccine during a clinic at the school on Monday.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Bittner is tired of practicing with masks on and tired of not being able to bond with the team. So when she heard that the vaccine would be offered at her school last week, she jumped at the chance.

"I definitely don’t ever want to be a carrier and give it to someone who could potentially die from that,” she said. “I think that’s irresponsible, and that’s never OK. If you have the option to just get a vaccine, if the side effects aren’t even that bad, over saving someone’s life possibly? 100 percent I would do it."

And for every person who gets vaccinated, there’s a host of reasons behind it.

Some Duluth teenagers who got a shot this week said it's their social obligation. Others are doing it to protect their grandparents. Many do it because they want to get back to playing sports and hanging out with friends.

"All of our friends are getting them so we can play [Dungeons & Dragons] together over the summer,” said Chase Anderson, a sophomore at Denfeld High School in Duluth. He got the shot at a clinic at school on Monday.

A sign on a wall provides details for a school vaccine clinic.
Signs at Denfeld High School in Duluth encourage students to get a COVID-19 vaccine during a clinic at the school on Monday.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Cedar Eamonn, a sophomore at Duluth East who got vaccinated last week, said teenagers need to step up and do their part.

"We might not be taking a deadly hit of it, but we’re transferring it a lot, which can be dangerous to the people we love the most.,” he said. “So I feel like us taking a step forward kind of shows that we care just as much as anyone else.”

Public health experts say it's important for teens to get vaccinated for two main reasons: One, even though it's less common than in older people, teens can get seriously sick from COVID-19. Two, as the group of vaccinated people grows, the possibilities that the virus can circulate — and evolve — shrink.

But there are a lot of 16- and 17-year-olds across the state who have not yet gotten vaccinated. So far, about 36 percent of Minnesotans in that age group have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine since they became eligible at the end of March. That compares to about half of 18- to 49-year-olds, and even higher percentages for older groups.

Part of the reason for that difference, experts say, is that we just haven't had as much time to vaccinate those younger people. They weren't eligible as early as older people. Minnesota began its vaccine rollout phases first by prioritizing essential frontline workers and long-term care residents, and then those who are 65 or older, and those with significant underlying health conditions. Young, relatively healthy Minnesotans have generally been among the last groups to become eligible.

Ashley Warren, a Denfeld senior, got her first shot on Monday, so she can go on a cruise when school's out. The cruise ship is requiring passengers be vaccinated. But she said most of her friends aren't planning to get their shot.

"And I don’t blame them, because I wasn’t going to get it,” she said. “But I feel like once they get around somebody that has it, or experienced it before, then they’ll probably have a different look on it."

Experts agree that teens need to talk to people they trust — friends, community leaders, their doctor — about the vaccine.

And at the same time, they say, communities need to knock down barriers for young people to access the vaccine.

That could look like, for example: "Having multiple ways to schedule for appointments, or allowing walk-ins for appointments, having extended hours available for parents that work and might not be able to bring their kids in until early in the morning or after school or on the weekends," said Dr. Nathan Chomilo, a pediatrician and the state health department’s COVID-19 vaccine equity director.

Another option is to bring the vaccine directly to students at school. Essentia Health has held clinics at two Duluth public high school for students 16 and older. Clinics for students 12 and older are scheduled at four more schools for next week.

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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