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Louisiana children 5-11 can get COVID vaccines: What we know about dose arrival, schools, more

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Paula Burch-Celentano
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Children ages 5 to 11 can get the COVID-19 vaccine as early as today, after the Louisiana Department of Health gave providers the greenlight Wednesday morning to begin administering Pfizer doses immediately.

The news comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Tuesday night that all children ages 5 to 11 receive the low-dose vaccine, clearing the way for shots to be administered as early as Wednesday.

“This is exactly the news we’ve been waiting to hear, and I’m especially glad that the best protection we have against COVID-19 is now being afforded to our children ages 5-11,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a press release.

While the federal government has already purchased a vaccine dose “for every child in America,” according to President Biden, shipments are still making their way to the states.

White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeffrey Zients said approximately 15 million doses are being shipped this week and the federal vaccine distribution program “will be fully operational” by Nov. 8, NPR reported.

The federal government began shipping the vaccine to states last Friday, following the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to authorize the vaccine for younger children, though Louisiana’s department of health said some local providers may not have doses until later this week or early next week.

There are approximately 421,000 children in Louisiana ages 5 to 11, and the state expects to receive 148,000 vaccine doses in its first allotment from the federal government, state health officer Dr. Joseph Kanter said during a press briefing Wednesday afternoon. Only 113,000 doses will be available this week, as vaccine distributors work through a high volume of shipments.

The remaining allotment should reach Louisiana providers by the end of next week, Kanter said.

Kanter said the state will distribute doses to its vaccine provider network in “a similar fashion” to earlier efforts. More than 450 providers have signed up to distribute vaccine doses for children ages 5 to 11.

Kanter said distribution will be slow through the first few days. So far, only a “handful” of providers have received their allotment.

“By the end of next week, we should be at steady state, and most providers should have their doses in stock,” Kanter said. “... Until that point, it’s going to be a bit slow as clinics receive their shipments from the feds.”

The latest version of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children 5 to 11 does not have some of the strict storage requirements that plagued the rollout of previous iterations. The formulation approved for use in children ages 5 to 11 can be stored in a standard refrigerator, allowing smaller clinics to store and administer the shots.

Kanter said this change should help with vaccine uptake by allowing parents to consult their trusted family pediatrician about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine and conveniently include the shot in the child’s regular immunizations.

“We know this is exciting news for many families and appreciate your patience with providers this week as the program ramps up over the coming days,” Kanter said in a statement Wednesday.

At this point, it's not yet clear how high pediatric vaccine uptake will be. While some Louisiana parents have said they plan to get their children vaccinated immediately, others have expressed hesitancy, and in some cases, have rejected the idea completely.

Children ages 12-17 have had access to the Pfizer vaccine for several months after federal health officials approved it in May. But the age group has been the slowest in Louisiana to get the jab, with only 32% of the eligible population vaccinated, according to LDH data.

Some state lawmakers have already disputed the need for younger children to receive the vaccine, and more than a dozen Republican House members sent a letter to Louisiana’s state superintendent of education, Cade Brumley, earlier this week.

The letter argues that a child’s immune system may be enough to protect them from the coronavirus and that the vaccine should not be placed on the list of required immunizations for students.

"The likelihood of children of this age group with no comorbidities to survive from COVID is 99.9973%," the letter said, claiming that one of the main risk factors for contracting the coronavirus is age.

While coronavirus fatalities among younger children remain rare, nearly 100 children ages 5 to 11 have died from COVID-19 nationally since the pandemic began, and an additional 8,300 were hospitalized.

Cases surged among children when the delta variant spread rapidly this past summer. Since August, 25% of new cases have been reported in children 18 and under. Nine Louisiana children died from COVID-19 during the delta surge and 18 have died since the start of the pandemic.

Health experts argue the level of protection the vaccine provides outweighs its potential risks, and LDH outlined this argument in its Wednesday guidance, calling the vaccine “safe and effective.”

Clinical vaccine trials found Pfizer’s pediatric vaccine to be 91% effective in preventing COVID-19 among children ages 5 to 11. Side effects were mild and similar to those experienced by adults, the most common of which was a sore arm.

“COVID-19 vaccines have undergone — and will continue to undergo — the most intensive safety monitoring in U.S. history,” LDH said. “Vaccinating children will help protect them from getting COVID-19 and therefore reducing their risk of severe disease, hospitalizations, or developing long-term COVID-19 complications.”

Dr. Rachel Chatters, President of the Louisiana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said news of the rollout was cause for celebration.

“We have been wanting to engage our 5 to 11 years olds in the best way that we can to get them back to normal in their daily family lives, their community lives, their educational lives and just being ‘normal,’” Chatters said. “One of the processes for that is getting them the best protection possible. At this time, that is immunization.”

Dr. John Vancherie, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at LSU Health Sciences Center - Shreveport, said the biggest challenge moving forward will be fighting disinformation on vaccine safety.

Vancherie oversaw COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials at LSUHSC - Shreveport, during which time he enrolled more than 400 individuals in the trials, including 75 children ages 5 to 11.

“There is nothing nefarious about this vaccine or its development,” Vancherie said. “These are kids who came in excited about participating in this cutting edge research and being pioneers in getting the vaccine because they recognize how important it is to help their friends and protect their community.”

Walgreens will begin administering the COVID-19 vaccine to younger children starting this Saturday, according to its website, though appointments in the New Orleans area are not available until the following Monday.

Preparation for youth vaccination events are already well underway in New Orleans public schools and a parent town hall — which can be accessed using this link — is scheduled for Wednesday evening.

The district has already provided the vaccine for students 12 years and older through dozens of school-based events and plans to do the same for younger children.

Families can call 211 or the state’s COVID-19 vaccine hotline at 1-855-453-0774 with general questions or to find a vaccination location, according to LDH. Federal government’s vaccine website should be updated with pediatric locations in the coming days.