Blaisdell

Oct. 20—Maine pediatricians and health officials are eagerly awaiting the first approved COVID-19 vaccines for younger school-aged children.

The Biden administration said this week that vaccines for children 5 to 11 years old could begin soon after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration meets next week to review data and a key federal advisory committee meets in the first week of November. And, as the state continues to see high levels of COVID-19 transmission, as well as hospitalizations and deaths, they say federal approval for both can't come soon enough.

"The fact that it has taken this long has been of grave concern to pediatricians in Maine and across the country," said Dr. Laura Blaisdell, vice president of the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "Vaccination is our path to a normal childhood. It's the path to play dates, and holiday gatherings without quarantining afterward, and so many other things."

The next phase of vaccinations also is expected to include broader access to booster doses for those already fully vaccinated. The CDC advisory committee met Wednesday to discuss data and recommendations on Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters and could approve those within days. Pfizer's boosters are already authorized.

In the meantime, pediatric offices, schools and health care officials are working to prepare to administer shots to children 5-11 as soon as authorization is granted.

Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said at a briefing Wednesday that he expects schools to be the primary location for child vaccinations but said pharmacies and doctor's offices will play a role as well. He said the Biden administration's approach to vaccinating children matches what Maine officials already have been planning.

Shah also said the rollout will include special efforts to reach the maximum number of families and children.

"It is a different approach in messaging," he said. "Even parents who themselves were vaccinated may have questions or concerns about vaccinating their kids. The most important thing is communicating the safety of the vaccine, and that's what the FDA and CDC will be vetting — making the case publicly and transparently that the vaccines are safe."

Dr. Patrick Connolly, a family physician at Martin's Point Healthcare in Portland, said that once children under 12 become eligible, they'll be able to receive the vaccine during regular visits. He said he is hearing questions, as well as some anxiety, from parents.

"There is some worry about is it going to work? Is it safe?" he said. "We're still awaiting the data, but everything we've seen from the adult world shows they're very safe and very effective in the adult population. I've relayed that to them and I also relay the importance of vaccinating, meaning the risk of getting sick and spreading it to others is significant, so the more people that get vaccinated, the better off we'll all be."

At the InterMed primary care office in Portland, Dr. Jay Larmon, a pediatrician, said most parents are excited about the possibility their younger children might soon be able to get vaccinated. There also are a lot of questions, especially about the timeline for children to get access to vaccines.

"It all kind of is going to depend on the CDC and the FDA," Larmon said. "As soon as we can get the approval from both governing bodies we would roll out our clinic to be able to offer the vaccine for kids 5-11, which is pretty exciting."

The rollout is expected to go much smoother — and faster — than the initial vaccination effort for health care workers and the elderly because there is ample supply of vaccine already to be delivered. Shah also said the vaccine doses for children will not need ultra-cold storage and can be ordered in small batches to deliver to more locations.

Some school districts already are preparing to offer clinics for younger students, including School Administrative District 51 in Cumberland and the Brunswick School Department.

In SAD 51, Superintendent Jeff Porter said the district is in the process of making plans and is hoping to have a clinic ready to go after the FDA gives final approval, likely in early November. The district is planning on working with a provider as they have in the past for clinics for older students. "We are reaching out now to a provider we have a relationship with," Porter said in an email.

In Brunswick, the school department has been planning since the summer to hold pediatric vaccination clinics in partnership with Mid Coast Hospital once authorization is approved. "It's been a longer journey, but we're hopeful authorization is coming soon," Assistant Superintendent Shawn Lambert said.

Details are still being finalized, but the hospital is also working with schools in the Bath and Topsham areas on plans for vaccine clinics, said Judy Kelsh, a spokeswoman for Mid Coast-Parkview Health, the parent company of Mid Coast Hospital. Kelsh said the hospital partners with schools and would provide all staff for the school-based clinics, which would be held in addition to community-based clinics.

"With more than 4,000 children aged 5-11 in our local community, it is our goal to vaccinate as many eligible individuals as quickly as possible," Kelsh said in an email.

Meanwhile, state health officials reported 649 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and seven additional deaths. The seven-day daily case average is now 491, which is down slightly from 589 cases on average two weeks ago but nearly unchanged from 485 cases this time last month.

Hospitalizations decreased to 199 on Wednesday, with 68 individuals in critical care and 34 on ventilators.

Dr. James Jarvis, COVID-19 incident commander for Northern Light Health, said preparations for vaccinating younger children have been ongoing.

"Already, most of our pediatric practices are delivering vaccines to some older patients, whether it's first or second doses, or boosters for those who are immunocompromised," he said. "In addition, we're working with state and school nurses to be prepared to do vaccine administration as schools as well."

Jarvis said the messaging on encouraging vaccines for younger children is twofold. He said even though the virus has generally been milder for children, there is still risk and that risk far outweighs any risks from getting the vaccine. More than that, he said, is looking at the greater good of the community. He said children and families shouldn't have to worry about putting an elderly family member at risk if they don't need to.

Blaisdell acknowledged that many Maine parents might have some hesitancy. The vaccination rate for children between 12-15 — who have been eligible for months — is only 56 percent.

"I think it's natural as a parent to take an extra layer of precaution when you're making a decision for your children," she said. "When I'm speaking with parents, one of the things I talk to them about is how this is not really a new vaccine anymore. We've administered enough doses and the vaccine's performance has been very (good) and its safety profile has been very clear."

Blaisdell said one of the things she expects to hear a lot from parents is: Why should I get my kids vaccinated against a virus that seems to be mild in children.

"COVID, thank goodness, continues to be a mild disease in children, but it's not risk-free," she said.

Blaisdell said there are a number of reasons why vaccines are the best option for children. First, she said, there is increasing data about long-term effects for people who contract COVID-19. Also, she said, children who are unvaccinated can be vectors for the virus. They are needed to help reach community-level immunity. And finally, Blaisdell said, as long as children are unvaccinated, there will be disruptions. Canceled games. Quarantining from schools. Continued testing.

Caitlin Gilmet with Maine Families for Vaccines, a group that formed to support vaccine requirements for school children before the pandemic, said the pending approval is cause for celebration.

"I have a sense that I'm watching history happen and understand what it was like for my grandparents to get the polio vaccine," she said. "My grandmother was a nurse; she has 10 grandchildren and eleven grandchildren. We'll be able to visit her once my son is eligible for the vaccine and celebrate my grandparents' 70th wedding anniversary."

Beyond that, Gilmet said she and many other parents are excited at the prospect of resuming karate classes, or soccer practice or play dates without a heightened level of anxiety.

"Parents have felt helpless as the pandemic has claimed lives and disrupted every aspect of life as we know it," she said. "For parents of immunocompromised kids, this is an important milestone on our way back to a safer world."

Staff Write Rachel Ohm contributed to this story.

Source : https://news.yahoo.com/pediatricians-schools-prepare-rollout-vaccines-224600782.html

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