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COVID vaccines for young children could be approved soon. Are Gulf States prepared?

A vaccinator administers a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. March 4, 2021.
Phoebe Jones / WWNO
A vaccinator administers a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, March 4, 2021.

COVID-19 shots for children between the ages of 5-11 years old may become available soon after the White House said Wednesday that the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are poised to sign off on a two-dose Pfizer regimen in the coming weeks.

Some pediatricians across the Gulf States say the shot could be a game-changer for the region, which is already lagging behind the rest of the country in vaccination rates and has faced high levels of transmission.

How soon will shots be rolled out?

Pfizer studied the shot in over 2,000 children and found it to be safe and effective, with some side effects similar to those found in the adult population. If the trial results are approved by federal regulators, millions of shots will be shipped out to providers. The vaccine will be one-third the dose given to adults and be delivered in distinct packaging. The shots were administered 21 days apart in the Pfizer trial.

“It's packaged differently. The whole color of the vial and the top of the vial is a little bit different. The dose is different. Everything is color-coded,” Dr. Katherine Baumgarten, Ochsner Health director of infection control and prevention, said. “We want to make sure that we're giving the proper dose to the proper aged child.”

The Louisiana Department of Health said in a memo Wednesday that providers are able to pre-order initial limited quantities of the vaccine. Baumgarten said the health system is getting ready for a wide distribution of the shot once it’s approved. Ochsner is still ironing out plans on how to deliver the shots, but it hopes to partner with as many groups as possible to do it.

“We know that there will probably be a lot of people at first that really want to get the vaccines as soon as they possibly can. So we'll be partnering with whomever is willing to partner with us — schools, other entities,” Baumgarten said. “Of course we will be rolling it out to our vaccine sites and clinical settings and planning for that. But those are in the works.”

A game changer for the Gulf South

John Gaudet, a Mississippi pediatrician and former president of the state’s American Academy of Pediatrics, says the shot could be a game changer in the Gulf South, where 47% or less of the adult population is fully vaccinated in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

In these states, 39% or less of the teenage population between the ages of 12 to 17 is fully vaccinated. The U.S. rate for this age group is at 59%, according to the New York Times COVID-19 data tracker.

Gaudet said the recent surge in the delta variant also showed that kids are not entirely immune from COVID-19. Many of the hospitals across the Gulf South that were overwhelmed in cases also saw an increase in pediatric patients.

“Depending on your state, children are about a quarter to a fifth of the population,” Gaudet said. “You can't achieve a high degree of immunity without immunizing children.”

The challenges ahead

Gaudet said it will take some time and convincing to get all kids vaccinated.

“Like anything else, there's going to be a proportion of families who are just going to be a hard ‘No’ for this vaccine for their kids. And then there's a percentage of families that are going to be lined up at the door on day one,” he said. “It can be an uncomfortable discussion, and for some people, talking about COVID vaccine is almost like it's a hot button issue.

“This is where your health care provider can come in and give you the best advice that's available and then make a recommendation for your individual child because that person knows your child.”

The White House has called on pediatricians and children's hospitals to play a key role in vaccinating children against COVID-19.

Dr. David Kimberlin, co-director of the pediatric division of infectious disease at Children's of Alabama, says pediatricians’ help will be critical and thinks that the public health messaging and strategy around reaching adults will have to be different than how it’s been with adults.

“The focus should be very much centered on where their current medical home is and their pediatrician's office,” Kimberlin said. “Parents across this country, across Alabama, across the southeast are very trusting of their pediatricians. Vaccines are right in our wheelhouse”

Rural areas in states like Alabama, however, may need extra efforts to push the shot out, Kimberlin says, noting that family practitioners, nurses working under the guidance of a pediatrician or family practice doctors might need to step in and help.

“Certainly there are many counties in Alabama that don't have a single pediatrician in them,” Kimberlin said. “Our focus needs to be on the physicians taking care of the patients in those local communities. Especially in our part of the country where we do have access issues, we need to be creative in how we’re thinking about this.”

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between WWNO in New Orleans, Mississippi Public Broadcasting, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and NPR. Support for health equity coverage comes from the Commonwealth Fund. 

Shalina Chatlani is the health care reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson.

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