'Strong' start to kids vaccine campaign, but challenges loom

Leo Hahn, 11, gets the first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.

WASHINGTON — The campaign to vaccinate elementary school age children in the U.S. is off to a strong start, health officials said Wednesday, but experts say there are signs that it will be difficult to sustain the initial momentum.

About 900,000 kids aged 5 to 11 will have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in their first week of eligibility, the White House said, providing the first glimpse at the pace of the school-aged vaccination campaign.

“We’re off to a very strong start,” said White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients, during a briefing with reporters.

Final clearance for the shots was granted by federal regulators on Nov. 2, with the first doses to kids beginning in some locations the following day.

The estimated increase in vaccinations in elementary school age children appears similar to a jump seen in May, when adolescents ages 12 to 15 became eligible for shots.

Now nearly 20,000 pharmacies, clinics and physicians’ offices are offering the doses to younger kids, and the Biden administration estimates that by the end of Wednesday more than 900,000 of the kid doses will have been given. On top of that, about 700,000 first-shot appointments are scheduled for the coming days.

About 28 million 5 to 11 year-olds are now eligible for the low-dose Pfizer vaccine. Kids who get their first of two shots by the end of next week will be fully vaccinated by Christmas.

The administration is encouraging schools to host vaccine clinics on site to make it even easier for kids to get shots. The White House is also asking schools to share information from “trusted messengers” like doctors and public health officials to combat misinformation around the vaccines.

A initial surge in demand for vaccinations was expected from parents who have been waiting for the chance to protect their younger kids, especially before the holidays.

About 3% of newly eligible children in the U.S. got first shots in the first week, but the rate of vaccinations in varied widely around the country, as it has for adult vaccines.

California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said Wednesday that more than 110,000 Californians ages 5 to 11 have received their first coronavirus shot — 9% of kids that age in the state.

“We are starting to see this pick up and I’m really encouraged about what this means for our state,” Ghaly said.

On the other ends of the spectrum, Idaho reported just 2,257 first shots, or 1.3% of the newly eligible kids there.

In West Virginia’s Cabell County, high demand led local health officials to start setting up vaccination clinics in all the county’s public middle schools. A spokeswoman for the county health department said there were some lines for vaccines in the first few days after the doses were approved for kids ages 5 to 11, but that things have slowed since then.

Some experts say that nationally, demand could also begin to recede soon. They note polling data suggests only a fraction of parents have planned to get their kids shots immediately, and they suspect the trend will play out like it did earlier this year when kids ages 12 to 15 were first able to get shots.

In the first week after vaccines for that age group were authorized in May, the number of adolescents getting a first shot jumped by roughly 900,000, according to an American Academy of Pediatrics review of federal data. The next week, it rose even further, to 1.6 million.

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