WASHINGTON — “Parents and families across the country are breathing giant sighs of relief — and we are just getting started,” White House pandemic response team leader Jeff Zients said during a Wednesday briefing, announcing an encouraging start to the complex and potentially fraught effort to inoculate some of the youngest Americans.
So far, Zients said, 900,000 children between the ages of 5 and 11 have already received the first dose of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine. He added that another 700,000 appointments were “already on the calendar at local pharmacies,” to say nothing of the school- and community-based centers that have been erected across much of the country.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave final approval for vaccinations for this youngest cohort last week, after debate among public health officials, parents and elected leaders about how best to approach the delicate matter. Some 28 million children can now receive the same protection as their older counterparts, albeit in a smaller dose.
Younger children generally do not get nearly as sick as the elderly from the coronavirus, but hundreds of children have gotten sick and died from COVID-19. And even mild infections — or simply a positive diagnostic test not necessarily followed by symptoms at all — can cause widespread disruption to schooling because of federal and local quarantine rules
Educators have struggled to make this school year more normal than last year, which was marked by months of remote learning in much of the country. Now they must contemplate whether to enact vaccine mandates for young children, which could lead to backlash from parents but could also ensure that schools stay open.
San Francisco has said it will put such a mandate in place.
Neither Zients nor CDC Director Rochelle Walensky could provide daily childhood vaccination figures. Though only days old, the effort was “hitting full strength,” Zients said, and would be completely realized by week’s end. Some 20,000 pharmacies, schools, community health centers and other institutions are intended to participate.
Zients specifically highlighted Minnesota, where some clinics offered potentially anxious children “stickers, pets and stuffed animals.” The age-appropriate incentives recalled an earlier time in the pandemic when public health officials across the country tried to coax adults into rolling up their sleeves with enticements like doughnuts, beer and cash.