Doctors: Vaccinations for younger kids key in combating COVID-19 spread

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — COVID-19 vaccines could soon be available for children as young as 12, encouraging West Michigan doctors who have been treating more kids who caught the virus.

After a study, Pfizer announced its two-shot vaccine — being manufactured in Portage — is effective and safe for people age 12 to 15. Only people over 16 are allowed to get a vaccine currently. Pfizer is now working to get emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to extend eligibility to younger teens.

“I’m personally elated and so happy that we have this access,” Dr. Rosemary Olivero, a pediatrician with Grand Rapids-based Spectrum Health, said.

Olivero said Spectrum has seen a significant uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations among kids. She said last year, kids represented about 3% of all cases in the United States; now, they account for about 22% of cases. Olivero attributed the shift to variants of the virus. 

“With the B.1.1.7. variant that’s really the dominant COVID-19 strain in Michigan, it’s so much more contagious and we have a completely unvaccinated pediatric population,” Olivero said during a virtual briefing hosted by Spectrum Tuesday morning.

Local school districts say they have noticed the uptick in children’s cases, too. On Monday, Hastings Middle School in Barry County was among 73 K-12 schools statewide added to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ school outbreak list. The school, which reported four cases in the outbreak, is now teaching students remotely until Monday.

“It’s tough. It’s tough in Barry County where the access to high-quality internet is pretty sparse,” Principal Beth Stevens said.

Stevens says the majority of the COVID-19 spread among students has happened outside of the school. For every one student who tests positive, she said, there may also be several close contacts who will have to quarantine, forcing more students to miss face-to-face learning.

Stevens said that if her students could get vaccinated, they wouldn’t have to isolate if they are asymptomatic after exposure.

“Having it as an option, I think, is going to be a positive thing. Of course, it’s going to be up to the parents and their caregiver if they feel that’s right for their circumstance,” Stevens said.

Doctors say their biggest concerns are the specific challenges children face as a result of COVID-19, like MIS-C, a rare condition that causes inflammation of the organs and can be deadly.

“MIS-C is nothing to be trifled with. It can be a very serious illness that, truth be told, we’re starting to see in adults now and they’re very, very sick people,” Spectrum Health Dr. Liam Sullivan, who specializes in infectious diseases, said.

Sullivan said that if the FDA gives the green light for younger teens to take the shot, the next hurdle will be convincing parents to allow their children to take it. 

“It’s absolutely essential that we get as many children vaccinated as possible to reach herd immunity,” Sullivan said. “If you look at smallpox, measles and polio virus, we never, ever achieved herd immunity through natural infection with any one of those viruses — we needed vaccination to do it. And COVID-19 is going to be the same way.” 

The FDA is expected to approve Pfizer’s EUA for people age 12 to 15 as early as next week.

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