Young Washingtonians forced to live portions of their formative years in front of computer screens rather than in school hallways could soon have license to new freedoms.
Some 378,000 Washingtonians ages 12 to 15 are now eligible for the two-dose Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, with many on Wednesday getting their first shots.
For these adolescents, it could be a gateway to a more normal summer.
And for their parents, vaccination could offer peace of mind and maybe even a respite — “a little space” — from their beloved offspring, said Michele Roberts, the state’s acting assistant secretary of health in charge of the vaccine rollout, eager to vaccinate kids of her own.
State officials have been preparing for a wave of vaccine-seeking teens.
“We have plenty of vaccine throughout the state of Washington,” Roberts said.
About 650,000 Pfizer doses are available in freezers at pharmacies, health clinics and hospitals throughout Washington state, Roberts said, adding that this week “additional Pfizer vaccine went to every county in the state.”
The Food and Drug Administration gave emergency authorization for use of this vaccine in 12- to 15-year-olds on Monday. An independent committee of experts advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention met on Wednesday and voted to recommend the vaccine for these children.
The advisers to the CDC unanimously found that the benefits of the vaccine outweighed any potential risks. A clinical trial found the vaccine had 100% efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19 for children ages 12 to 15.
Although children are generally at lower risk after infection with the coronavirus, more than 13,000 kids ages 12 through 17 have been hospitalized nationwide with COVID-19, according to slides presented to the experts Wednesday.
During the clinical trial, more than 1,130 children received vaccine and a similar number received a placebo shot, according to data presented.
A separate group of experts advising leaders in Western states voted Wednesday night to recommend the expanded eligibility and the Department of Health adopted the recommendation, according to a department news release.
Earlier Wednesday, state officials encouraged vaccine providers and parents to wait for experts’ clinical advice and authorization before booking appointments for 12- to 15-year-olds, but several vaccine providers had begun already.
About noon Wednesday at the Lumen Field mass-vaccination site, Emmett O’Donnell, 13, was among the first younger-than-16-year-old recipients of a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
Emmett had come with his mom, Joanna Grist, and his brother, Keenan, who got his first dose after his younger sibling. Grist said that they decided to come that day because they don’t have school on Wednesdays and because Keenan, who recently turned 16, was newly eligible for the Pfizer shot.
Site workers and volunteers surrounded the boy’s table, buzzing with excitement over what felt like a momentous moment — a new group of people eager and ready to get a vaccine.
Emmett, however, was more focused on his shot.
“How does it feel?” a site volunteer asked him afterward.
“It felt like a needle going into my arm,” the Seattle teenager responded.
More than 200 people ages 12 to 15 were given shots Wednesday at the Lumen Field mass-vaccination site, according to the City of Seattle, which operates the site along with Swedish Medical Center. Vaccinators began administering Pfizer doses to the age group soon after the site received guidance from state officials that the vaccine had been authorized by the FDA for use by providers.
Health care workers at site provided shots to the young teens, in part, to “avoid causing harm to children and families who traveled to Lumen with the hope and assumption that they would get vaccinated,” the City of Seattle and Swedish Health said in a joint statement.
In general, people under age 18 must receive parental consent for medical procedures, including immunizations.
“Parents don’t have to be present, but they do need to give their consent,” Roberts said.
There are some exceptions, such as emancipated minors and those who health care providers determine are “mature minors” under state law.
Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County, said vaccine providers have varying policies on what’s required to prove parental consent. He suggested checking online or calling ahead if parents don’t plan to accompany their child.
Vaccinating children and younger teens is likely to be handled differently than with previous eligible groups.
The scale of mass vaccination sites can be overwhelming for some younger people, and they could be affected by seeing other kids in distress while receiving a shot.
A team from Swedish Medical Center is planning, with input from pediatricians and child specialists, how to make the mass vaccination site more welcoming to children and teens, Renee Rassilyer-Bomers, chief quality officer at Swedish, said during a Washington State Hospital Association news briefing on Monday.
One of the ideas is to create “pods,” which will be private spaces where others won’t see the children being jabbed.
Many public health officials want 12- to 15-year-olds, and younger children after they’ve been approved for the shots, to be vaccinated by their primary care physician.
“The ideal place for vaccination and all their health care to occur is in the medical home, through their primary care provider,” said Dr. Chris Spitters, health officer at the Snohomish Health District.
The Snohomish Health District will be working with pediatricians who are already set up to administer childhood vaccinations in the county to make sure they have vaccines and are ready to provide any other care a child might have missed since the pandemic began last year and many routine clinic visits went virtual.
When a child is being immunized, health care providers are also using that time to check on a child’s development and physical and mental health, Spitters said during a news briefing on Tuesday.
“As the age of the vaccine candidate decreases, the benefits of that visit can be lost through a mass site. That’s why we’re encouraging this to occur in the medical home, there’s so much prevention care that’s been deferred,” he said.
Not every child has a primary care physician. The health district is planning with the county’s emergency coordination center on how to handle vaccinations for these families at county-run vaccination sites, Spitters said.
Duchin said walk-in and book-ahead appointments are available at vaccine sites operated by Public Health — Seattle & King County. Its site at Kent’s ShoWare Center will offer live, outdoor music this Saturday. Those vaccinated will receive buttons designed by local artists.
Public Health has been coordinating with King County school districts to host vaccine clinics before the school year ends.
“We’ve reached out to all school districts in the county to match them up with vaccine providers to enable vaccine clinics on campus,” Duchin said. “Nearly all districts have plans in place to hold clinics at high schools and middle schools.”
Starting Monday, Seattle’s K-8, middle and high schools will host vaccine clinics for students age 12 and older, Seattle Public Schools announced Wednesday.
Students will need to bring a signed parental consent form and complete a health screening, the school district said. In-person learning students who are eligible and have an approved consent form will be dismissed for the clinic; details of the in-person vaccination schedule will be sent to families. Remote-learning students may arrive at the clinics, which don’t require appointments, at any time during the scheduled time block for their school. The full list of each school’s clinic time is available on the Seattle Public Schools website.
Anyone aged 12 and older will be able to get a vaccine dose beginning Thursday at the Rainier Beach and West Seattle mass-vaccination sites, at pop-up clinics at Sounders matches and Mariners games, and at pop-up clinics in Ballard, Fremont and West Seattle.
UW Medicine said it has scheduled more than 6,000 appointments for patients ages 12 to 15 to receive a Pfizer dose at its vaccination clinics.
State health officials encouraged parents to make arrangements for their children soon. Once vaccinated, they can more safely participate in “sports, theater, dance — whatever makes your child’s heart sing,” Roberts said.
And with every person protected from the virus, risk is reduced in the broader community — including for those unable or unwilling to be vaccinated.
More than 6 million doses have been administered in Washington state. About 57% of Washington residents age 16 and older have received at least one dose of a vaccine. More than a third are fully vaccinated.
Meantime, the number of new cases reported has flattened and begun to decline, according to the state’s data dashboard. Hospitalizations appear to be following that trend, too.
“There’s a lot to be hopeful about going into the summer,” said Dr. Umair Shah, the state health secretary.