COVID-19 vaccines finally are headed for more kids as U.S. regulators on Monday expanded use of Pfizer's shot to those as young as 12, sparking a race to protect middle and high school students, including those in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, before the start of the new school year.
Shots could begin as soon as a federal vaccine advisory committee issues recommendations for using the two-dose vaccine in 12- to 15-year-olds, expected Wednesday.
Locally, the school system has been working with the Forsyth County Department of Public Health on ways to vaccinate this age group. Though no plan has been announced, the school district has said it is willing to use its school buildings as vaccination sites, but the decision is up to the health department.
Superintendent Tricia McManus said the school district will continue to look for guidance from the health department and other health care providers on how to proceed.
"We know our schools are hubs of their community and a good place to reach not only students, but the community at large," she said in a statement.
So far, local school buildings have not been used for its older students, ages 16 and up, who are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine.
Some school systems, such as Davie County Schools and Asheboro City Schools, have held vaccine clinics at their schools for students.
McManus clarified that if vaccine clinics are held at the schools, students must have parental consent.
"We would never consider providing medical services of any kind without parental consent," she said. "If it helps the greater community to use our schools as sites, then we are ready to offer the sites to our healthcare partners as they need them, but again, any clinics on our campuses would require parental consent before any minor could get vaccinated.”
Vaccinating children of all ages will be critical to a return to normalcy. Most COVID-19 vaccines rolling out worldwide have been authorized for adults. Pfizer's vaccine is being used in multiple countries for teens as young as 16, and Canada recently became the first to expand use to children age 12 and up. Parents, school administrators and public health officials elsewhere are anxiously awaiting the shot to become available to more kids.
"This is a watershed moment in our ability to fight back the COVID-19 pandemic," Dr. Bill Gruber, a Pfizer senior vice president who's also a pediatrician, told The Associated Press.
The Food and Drug Administration declared the Pfizer vaccine is safe and offers strong protection for younger teens based on testing of more than 2,000 U.S. volunteers ages 12 to 15. The study found no cases of COVID-19 among fully vaccinated adolescents compared to 18 among kids given dummy shots.
More intriguing, researchers found the kids developed higher levels of virus-fighting antibodies than earlier studies measured in young adults.
The younger teens received the same vaccine dosage as adults and had the same side effects, mostly sore arms and flu-like fever, chills or aches that signal a revved-up immune system, especially after the second dose.
Pfizer's testing in adolescents "met our rigorous standards," said FDA vaccine chief Dr. Peter Marks. "Having a vaccine authorized for a younger population is a critical step in continuing to lessen the immense public health burden caused by the COVID-19 pandemic."
Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech recently requested similar authorization in the European Union, with other countries to follow.
Local health care groups said they plan to base part of their strategy for vaccinating 12- to 15-year-olds on the response to a survey conducted last week and released Friday by the county health department and the school district.
The survey received 1,497 responses, although some of the respondents said they do not have children in the affected age range.
A majority of people who responded said they would favor their children getting a COVID-19 vaccine. Having vaccinations at school was the most popular of the options offered.
Children are far less likely than adults to get seriously ill from COVID-19 yet they still have been hard-hit by the pandemic. They represent nearly 14% of the nation's coronavirus cases. At least 296 have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. alone and more than 15,000 have been hospitalized, according to a tally by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
That's not counting the toll of family members becoming ill or dying — or the disruption to school, sports and other activities so crucial to children's overall well-being.
"Children right now are struggling," Gruber said. Plus, "we need as many people in the country who have the potential to transmit the virus to be protected."
Experts say children must get the shots if the country is to vaccinate the 70% to 85% of the population necessary to reach what's called herd immunity.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.