The next chapter of the push to boost COVID-19 vaccinations rates started Wednesday, as children ages 5 to 11 began rolling up their sleeves — a long-awaited new phase of the inoculation campaign that officials hope will help California stave off another feared coronavirus surge over the winter.
A day after federal health officials gave their highly anticipated blessing to expanding pediatric use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, some parents flocked to clinics and hospitals with youngsters in tow.
But it will take time to see how quickly this age group can get inoculated and how reluctant or resistant some parents might be. Statewide, 3.5 million additional children are now eligible for the shots.
The Los Angeles Unified School District is not requiring students ages 5 to 11 to get a COVID-19 vaccine, although the shots will be available at various campuses if parents want their children to be inoculated. By contrast, the LAUSD and a handful of other school districts in California are mandating that older students be vaccinated to remain on campus for the semester starting in January. In Los Angeles, public school students will be required to be vaccinated by Jan. 10.
Gov. Gavin Newsom last month announced a statewide COVID-19 vaccine mandate for schoolchildren, but the first phase of that plan, for those age 12 and older, probably won’t go into effect until either next summer or more than a year from now. Unlike L.A. Unified, the state mandate would provide for exemptions for parents who say they disagree with the vaccine mandate for their children.
Officials said there will be plenty of doses available for children. California has been initially allocated 1.2 million doses for children who are newly eligible for shots; 860,000 have already been distributed statewide.
“We don’t anticipate scarcity, and we expect that there’ll be ample vaccine to meet demand,” L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said.
The new vaccine push comes as the holiday season approaches and California’s COVID-19 numbers are flattening after months of decline. In recent weeks, COVID-19 hospitalizations have stopped declining in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties, and since mid-October, have increased by 11% in San Diego County and 20% in San Bernardino County.
COVID-19 hospitalizations in Riverside County have risen by 27% in the last 10 days.
Health officials in California remain concerned that there could possibly be a fifth wave of the pandemic as colder weather sets in and people spend more time indoors. Vaccination levels in California, while relatively high compared with other states, are still too low to prevent a substantial risk of transmission.
The vaccine rollout came on the same day the pandemic surpassed another devastating milestone: 750,000 dead from COVID-19 nationwide, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Officials hope the combination of children vaccinations and booster shots for adults can bolster immunity rates.
A clinical trial of the vaccine showed an efficacy rate of nearly 91% in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 cases in children 5 to 11 who were not previously infected.
Children nationwide were at higher risk for hospitalization during the latest surge. Over a six-week period that ended in mid-August, COVID-19 hospitalizations among children and adolescents increased fivefold, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said at a briefing Wednesday.
New research indicates that children and adults are equally vulnerable to coronavirus infections, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious-disease expert, said Wednesday. Children who are infected are still less likely to become visibly sick than adults; half of children 5 to 11 who are infected may show no symptoms.
Previously, there was some initial thought that infected children were not particularly likely to transmit the virus to parents or classmates. However, it’s becoming clear that infected children are also capable of transmitting the virus to people in their households and schools, Fauci said. Vaccination decreases the likelihood of coronavirus transmission.
The Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup, a coalition of public health experts from California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, gave its green light to the vaccine Wednesday morning, formally clearing the way for vaccinations to be distributed in California. The move came after the CDC director, Walensky, recommended late Tuesday that more than 28 million children nationwide ages 5 to 11 get the shots.
“This expanded eligibility for lifesaving vaccines moves us closer to ending the pandemic,” Newsom said in a statement.
By the afternoon, vaccinations had already gone into the arms of 5- to 11-year-olds at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and at the county vaccination site at Eugene A. Obregon Park in East L.A. The L.A. County Department of Public Health website, vaccinatelacounty.com, has begun listing clinics offering the Pfizer-BioNTech shots for young children.
Santa Clara County, Northern California’s most populous county, also began dispensing vaccines to youngsters at its clinics; so did Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego.
Kaiser Permanente was set to immunize young children in Orange County on Thursday, the same day that public clinics run by San Bernardino and Ventura counties are prepared to host kids. Vaccine clinics run by Riverside County and Long Beach will be ready later this week.
California’s vaccination website, myturn.ca.gov, began offering appointments for the age group Wednesday night. Some national pharmacy chains have started to accept appointments, with Walgreens announcing it will begin administering shots Saturday and CVS on Sunday.
Some parents in the San Francisco Bay Area on Wednesday reported having a difficult time booking appointments for their children.
For the first week of the rollout, Ferrer suggested that parents and guardians call ahead to make sure the location is stocked with kid-size doses. There was at least one parent who arrived Wednesday morning at an L.A. County clinic advertised as having the shots, only to be told the doses weren’t available yet.
The vaccines for this age group are specially formulated and come in vials with an orange cap, administered using smaller needles with a dosage one-third the size of those given to people 12 and older. The Pfizer-BioNTech dose for older recipients comes in a different vial, with a purple cap, and is not appropriate for younger children.
In L.A. County, an estimated 900,000 children are newly eligible for the vaccine. The county expects to get nearly 300,000 doses in shipments over the next 10 days, and eventually, there will be 900 sites countywide offering the shots to this age group.
Mobile vaccination teams also will be dispatched. Officials are planning for 480 school-based vaccination clinics this month in the neediest areas.
The vaccinations are administered in a set of two doses, to be given three weeks apart. People are considered fully protected two weeks after their final dose, meaning children who begin their vaccination series by mid-November will be fully protected by Christmas.
The vaccinations are free, and recipients do not need to be U.S. citizens or have health insurance.
Beginning Monday, the L.A. Unified School District will roll out mobile vaccination teams for the younger students. Beginning Nov. 16, 13 school-based clinics will offer the vaccine. Some clinics will provide the vaccine on Saturdays.
“COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective and the best way to protect our students, staff and families, and public schools are natural sites for our students and families to receive this life-saving vaccine,” the district stated.
L.A. Unified’s mandate for students 12 and older began to kick in this week, when high school students involved in team sports, band and drill had to provide verification of having received both doses of the two-shot regimen.
About 77% of eligible students on these teams had complied. Some teams in some schools were hit hard by suddenly ineligible students.
University High on the Westside had to forfeit its City Section Division II semifinal girls’ tennis match against Hamilton High because it didn’t have enough players vaccinated. Esteban Torres High in East Los Angeles pulled out of its football playoff game Friday against New Designs Charter Schools — Watts for the same issue. At Taft High in Woodland Hills, officials were alerting more than 100 students for all sports that they no longer were permitted to play on teams, handing them a letter explaining the mandate, which had been widely publicized.
The district has refused so far to release numbers to the public on the extent to which individual teams are affected at each school. The coaches, however, have these data for their schools and know whom to pull from games and practices — or whether the game can go on.
Times staff writer Eric Sondheimer contributed to this report.
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