California is rolling out thousands of vaccination clinics across the state as eligibility expands to children ages 5 to 11.
The lower dose version of the Pfizer vaccine was approved for emergency use authorization last week, and vaccinations began immediately. This comes as nearly 70% of Californians have received at least one COVID-19 shot.
Now, this latest chapter in the pandemic also comes with questions for the youngest age group. According to the state, around 74,000 kids ages 5 to 11 have already received their first dose of the vaccine since it was approved Nov. 2.
CapRadio’s Vicki Gonzalez talked to California's Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Mark Ghaly about the vaccine rollout to children 5 and older.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
On the unique challenges to scaling up clinics for children 5 to 11
For a lot of young people, it's getting into the provider that they want to administer the vaccine, that they want to get the questions answered from. So I think in the days to come, we're going to see a number of new sites pop up. More pharmacies are able to provide the vaccines, as well as those trusted pediatricians, family practice providers and federally qualified health centers that have been doing it all along. So I think that any challenges that people have experienced, I think, will start to erode and go away in the case.
On whether parents who are interested in vaccinating their child now should go through their pediatrician or an offsite clinic
I think both work. It really depends on what you're comfortable with. I think many people would like to go to their regular provider, which is a completely reasonable thing to do. I know as a primary care pediatrician, I always love to be able to provide all of the care to the patients I had a connection and relationship with. So that might be what works for one family. And another family might say I'm a block away from a Walgreens that's providing it Saturday morning, I'm going to go there. All of that works.
On the kind of clinical trials the vaccine went through for younger children and how or if they differed from other trials for older age groups
They differed in that the age of the young people were 5 to 11. They were very deliberate to try to reach out to all parts of the nation, all races, ethnic groups to make sure that we had a representative sample of 4,000-plus young people in this age group who went through the trial. They saw at the lower dose that it was a highly effective vaccine and that the side effects, even the day of, the day after, side effects were tolerable. A little arm soreness, maybe some low grade temperatures, but overall, the trial was a very robust one, and it came together because so many eager young people were interested in being part of the trial. It came together just as quickly as some of the adult trials. So I would say a material difference is it was a lower dose. They looked at the 5- to 11-year-olds olds, but they saw the same thing that they saw in the adult trials — highly effective and safe vaccine.
On any more serious side effects that he wants parents to consider or know about when they talk to their pediatrician and make a decision whether to vaccinate their child
I also think it's important to come in with your questions in hand, because as you know, some of those visits go very quickly, and by the time you leave the office, you wish you would ask that one more question. So my advice is always write those down.
But I also remind people with the 5 to 11 [year-olds], we've been so focused on this idea that young people are doing it for older Californians to keep their communities safe. I'll remind you that we've lost more kids to COVID than we have any other vaccine-preventable disease since the beginning of this pandemic. That's the first thing.
The second thing is we are seeing the long term impacts of COVID infection on kids, even though they don't have the worst outcomes, thank God.
Of those significant numbers of hospitalizations and deaths, as we saw in adults, we still see the consequence of long term COVID, respiratory problems, neurologic problems, psychiatric problems that we want to make sure that we avoid [that at] all costs. So this isn't just about the kids doing another great act for adults, this is about protecting the 5- to 11-year-olds first and foremost, and I want to make sure that all parents or guardians, all 5- to 11-year-olds know this is really about protecting and supporting their health, not just the health of all Californians.
On what Ghaly would say to parents who believe children only get mild forms of COVID-19 and don't need to be vaccinated.
The truth is, the side effects of the vaccine, if there are any, are very, very mild as well. And the consequences of actually getting the COVID infection are much greater. For all of the things and the concerns that parents have around the side effects and the concern around inflammation of the heart and other challenges that I think have been well captured in the media, the truth is, getting the disease of COVID can cause those same problems, but much, much worse and more frequently. So it is important to highlight that getting COVID. Sometimes kids and people are lucky to avoid significant problems, but oftentimes it's not the case.
On whether California's planned vaccine or testing requirement for students or local school district mandates will exacerbate inequity among Latino and African-American residents, where vaccination rates are already low.
When I think about the equity challenges that we've been facing throughout this — and there have been many and California has leaned in in a tremendous way to make sure that we close gaps and really probably to address the inequities that we've seen — having kids and schools vaccinated, to me, is one of the strongest equity equity decisions that we can make. So I support school districts who are making decisions locally. I support what the state has done in looking at having a vaccine requirement in schools once full FDA approval is reached, and I think that we're going to see a number of families see the benefit of the vaccine and moving forward to make the decision for their own young people.
On what he says to parents who are OK with vaccines such as measles and mumps and tetanus, which are required within school districts, but are more uncomfortable with the emergency use authorization piece of vaccinations for children 5 to 15 years old.
First off, it's completely understandable to have questions and concerns. I mean, I have four kids. My wife and I sat down and we talked through the information and the data ourselves, even though I and she live and breathe this. We had a very deliberate conversation and made the decision that it was the safe and effective things to do for our kids, not just our family, but for them. Five, 7, 11-year-old, We've all decided to have them vaccinated, so I think it's important to ask all of the questions that you have, get the answers so that you can make a good and well-informed decision.
On whether masking requirements will go away next summer after the state school vaccine mandate goes into effect.
That's certainly our hope, Vicki. You know, the mask mandate, the mask requirement in schools right now is really in place because we've seen its impact in effect, and it's worked. It's kept California schools open at one of the highest rates since the beginning of this school year. We've had fewer outbreaks than other states have had and we've had, I would say, the school year has been a tremendous success from the perspective of getting kids back in-person education, which we know was something they missed and lost out on in last year. So the assessment of where to go with masking is going to be one that is built around where the transmission rates are and how significant they are across the state. And one of the most effective ways to keep our transmission rates down is to get people vaccinated so they go hand in hand. There's not a direct metric, there's not a magic number or a threshold of having people vaccinated. But getting vaccinated keeps our rates down. Keeping our rates down is going to help us get not just schools, but everything else back to what we all missed pre-pandemic.
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