Health officials said Wednesday that the campaign to vaccinate primary school children in the US is on a good start, but experts say there are signs that it will be difficult to maintain the initial momentum.
According to the White House, about 900,000 children aged 5 to 11 will receive their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine in the first week after becoming eligible, providing a first indication of the pace of the school vaccination campaign.
“We are off to a very good start,” White House COVID-19 Coordinator Jeff Zientes said during a press briefing.
The final approval for vaccinations was given by federal regulators on November 2, and the first doses to children in some locations will begin the next day.
The estimated increase in vaccinations for primary school children is similar to the jump seen in May, when adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15 became eligible for vaccinations.
There are now about 20,000 pharmacies, clinics and doctors’ offices offering doses for young children, and the Biden administration estimates that more than 900,000 child doses will be dispensed by the end of Wednesday. In addition to this, about 700,000 first aid appointments are planned for the coming days.
About 28 million children aged 5 to 11 are now eligible for Pfizer’s low-dose vaccine. Children who get the first of two shots by the end of next week will be fully vaccinated by Christmas.
The administration is encouraging schools to open vaccination clinics on site to make it even easier for children to get vaccinated. The White House is also asking schools to share information from “trusted messengers” such as doctors and health officials to combat misinformation about vaccines.
The initial surge in vaccine demand was expected from parents looking to protect their young children, especially before the holidays.
About 3% of first-time eligible children in the United States received their first shots in the first week, but the number of shots varies widely across the country, as do vaccines for adults.
California Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mark Ghali said Wednesday that more than 110,000 Californians aged 5 to 11 received their first coronavirus vaccine – 9% of children of this age in the state.
“We’re starting to see this rise and I’m really excited about what this means for our state,” Gali said.
On the other hand, Idaho reported just 2,257 first shots, or 1.3% of the children eligible for the program.
In Cabell County, West Virginia, strong demand has prompted local health officials to open vaccination clinics in all public high schools in the county. A spokeswoman for the county health department said there were multiple queues for vaccines in the first few days after doses were approved for children ages 5 to 11, but the situation has slowed since then.
Some experts say that demand may start to decline soon. They note that survey data show that only a subset of parents planned to vaccinate their children immediately, and they suspect the trend will continue, as at the beginning of this year, when children aged 12 to 15 were able to get vaccinated for the first time.
In the first week after vaccines for this age group were approved in May, the number of adolescents who received their first vaccine jumped by about 900,000, according to a federal survey by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The next week, it rose even more to 1.6 million.
“There was an initial spike,” said Shannon Stokeley of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But then that number declined steadily for several months, only briefly interrupted in early August as the delta variant skyrocketed and parents prepared to send their children back to school.
Since then, the number of shots among adolescents has dropped significantly: last week only 32,000 received their first shots. Only about half of adolescents aged 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated, compared with 70% of adults.
Vaccination rates for young children are unlikely to be as high as those of adults – or even adolescents, some experts say, unless they are required for school.
Part of the reason is that adults are far more likely than children to suffer from serious illness or die from COVID-19, they noted. “Parents may have a feeling that this is not so serious for young children, or they are not passing it on,” said Stokely, acting deputy director of the CDC’s immunization division.
But since the start of the pandemic, more than 2 million cases of COVID have been reported among children ages 5-11 in the United States, including 66 deaths in the past year, according to the CDC. “We have a lot of work to do to educate parents about why it is important to vaccinate their children,” she said.
Zient said efforts to vaccinate young children are still stepping up and new clinics are opening. Government officials expect the number of vaccinated children to rise in the coming days and weeks, he said.
“We’re just getting started,” he said.
Earlier this year, the White House set – and missed – a July 4 target – to vaccinate at least a certain percentage of the US adult population. Officials have not announced a similar target for children.
Dr. Lee Savio Bierce, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, called the new numbers encouraging and said implementation appears to be going smoothly for the most part. However, she noted that at a lower dose and different vials than for older children, deployment requires more steps and that some states are slower to ship vaccine to providers.
Initial data from some regions show black children are lagging behind whites in their first doses, which Bierce said is a concern.
“It is very important to make sure the vaccine is readily available in a wide variety of locations,” Bierce said.