The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday granted emergency authorization to administer the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to children ages 12 to 15, setting the stage for Oregon to launch a campaign to vaccinate a large swath of that population.
Until now, only children 16 and older -- and adults -- could receive the Pfizer vaccine. The federal agency’s action does not immediately make the Pfizer vaccine available to children ages 12-15 in Oregon. There are several more steps to the approval process. But soon, the expansion will give state public health officials another population group on which to focus vaccination efforts. Vaccination rates in the state, and nationwide, are still far below the level needed to reach herd immunity.
So far, nearly 2 million people out of Oregon’s 4.2 million population have had at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, which requires two shots spaced several weeks apart. Of those, nearly 1.5 million have received both doses. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine only requires one dose.
That’s less than half the state’s population and experts have estimated that 75% to 85% of people need to be vaccinated in order to reach herd immunity, when enough people are inoculated to stop the virus.
Reflecting a slowdown in public demand for the vaccine, the Oregon Convention Center’s mass vaccination site announced Monday that it would wrap up its vaccination work in June. Vaccination work will continue across Oregon, albeit on a more modest scale, including at smaller vaccination sites as well as in the offices of primary care providers, pediatricians, dentists and pharmacies.
Parents and children needn’t show up just yet for a shot. Following the FDA move, the federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will meet Wednesday and make a recommendation to the director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That same day, the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroupwill review the issue and make a determination for governors in participating states, which include Oregon, Washington, Nevada and California.
The decision would make more than 150,000 children in Oregon eligible for vaccinations. Oregon had nearly 150,000 children between 12 and 14 years old in 2019, according to census data compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Another 147,000 children were 15 to 17 years old.
Oregon public health officials are already preparing for the push.
“In anticipation of recommendations for administration of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to this age group, we have been working with health care providers, pharmacies, community-based organizations, and school districts to make the Pfizer vaccine readily available for eligible youth throughout the state,” Oregon Health Authority spokesman Rudy Owens said in a statement. “We will continue our focus on making culturally relevant resources about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines available so students and parents can make informed decisions about protecting themselves and their families.”
Owens said the authority recommends all eligible people in Oregon get vaccinated and “until we have sufficient numbers,” everyone should follow safety steps. Those include wearing a mask, distancing and avoiding crowded gatherings.
Health officials didn’t say when, exactly, children ages 12-15 will be able to get the vaccine. But given the remaining steps, they could be eligible by the end of the week.
Some parents are ready to vaccinate their children. Parents on Monday started showing up with their children the Oregon Convention Center’s mass vaccination clinic after the news broke of the FDA approval. It was too early. The site is still waiting for OHA approval and making preparations for when that happens, said Debbie Karman, a spokeswoman for Kaiser Permanente, one of the providers participating in the mass vaccination program.
In general, COVID-19 is less severe in children than adults, especially senior citizens. About 22,000 Oregonians between 10 and 19 years old have contracted COVID-19 during the pandemic. Fewer than 200 -- that’s under 1% -- were hospitalized.
Older groups have progressively higher hospitalization rates. About 2% of adults in their twenties and thirties needed hospitalization for COVID-19, state data show. About 12% of adults in their sixties and 23% of adults in their seventies with COVID-19 went to a hospital.
Pediatricians are already talking to parents with questions. Dr. Jay Rosenbloom, a pediatrician in Tigard, said his practice, Pediatric Associates of the Northwest, already planned a vaccination clinic for Saturday before the news. Pediatric Associates of the Northwest has 12 pediatricians in three locations: Portland, Tigard and Beaverton.
If younger Oregon youth become eligible, there will be slots for them, Rosenbloom said.
Opinions can run the gamut. Some parents see benefits to vaccinating children and further lowering the odds of the children spreading the virus to others, Rosenbloom said.
Others are more skeptical about the need to vaccinate youth because COVID-19 is rarely dangerous for children. Rosenbloom said pediatricians can give patients personal answers about specific, individual concerns.
"When somebody is questioning vaccines, you can't just do some set presentation and expect to change people's minds, because there are so many different concerns that people have,” he said.
The FDA action does not apply to vaccines from two other manufacturers: Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.