Ten weeks after they became eligible, 55 percent of children ages 12 to 15 in Massachusetts have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. While that’s higher than the national average, local disease experts are concerned that vaccinations for that age range are starting to plateau in the critical run-up to the start of school in the fall.
So far, Pfizer-BioNTech is the only vaccine that has received emergency use authorization for 12- to 15-year-olds. That announcement came from the Food and Drug Administration on May 10.
In the first five weeks they were eligible, over 150,000 children ages 12 to 15 — about 47 percent of those who live in the state — received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to data from the Department of Public Health. Young recipients celebrated soon being able to see grandparents, go to the park, hang out with friends, and play hockey without a mask.
But in the next five weeks, less than 30,000 additional children in that age group got a shot — only raising the total to 178,000, or 55 percent, as of last week’s data. Massachusetts far outstrips the national vaccination rate for that age range, which is just 34 percent.
Dr. David Hamer, an infectious diseases doctor at Boston Medical Center and a professor at Boston University School of Medicine, said that after “a good start,” the latest figures in Massachusetts suggest that “we’re plateauing.”
Most of families who wanted their children to get vaccinated have likely already procured a shot, and those who remain “may not be willing to do it, or they may be slower,” Hamer said — a concern due to the fast-approaching start of school.
Within the state, 12- to 15-year-olds have the lowest vaccination rate of any age range, followed by 16- to 19-year-olds, who are at 63 percent. Parental consent is required for vaccination of any individual under 18.
Dr. Kristin Moffitt, a pediatric infectious diseases doctor at Boston Children’s Hospital, said she has encountered “some hesitancy on the part of parents, and sometimes even the adolescents themselves.”
“Families have expressed an interest in there being more experience that would make them feel more comfortable with the safety of these vaccines,” she explained.
Though billions of individuals worldwide have been vaccinated against COVID-19, “we have much much smaller number of 12- to 17-year-olds that have been immunized,” Moffitt said. Parental fears also stem from the fact that the United States is the first nation to extend eligibility to children that age.
Some parents are themselves vaccinated, but reluctant to permit the shot for their children — a common phenomenon in pediatrics, she said.
Moffiit said she reassures such parents that there is a “growing body of data” to attest to the vaccine’s safety in adolescents — to date, about 9 million 12- to 17-year-olds in the United States have received at least one dose.
“All of that larger body of experience continues to show us that these vaccines are safe in this age range, and we know that they’re very effective in this age range,” she said. “We’ve got the data. We’ve got the experience.”
Whatever risks parents might fear, experts agree that the risks of not inoculating children are more significant. Children can become sick with COVID-19, and though severe sickness is rare, it’s not unheard of. They can also transmit the infection to others.
Moffitt emphasized the importance of vaccination before adolescents attend their first day of school. All schools in Massachusetts are required to return to in person education in the fall, and the state has lifted all school protocols for COVID-19.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that fully vaccinated teachers and students don’t have to wear masks at school, though the American Academy of Pediatrics advised that all students continue to cover their faces.
“The time is now for the families who’ve been waiting to get their 12- to 15-year-olds immunized, if they want them to be fully immunized before school starts,” Moffitt said.
Pfizer requires two shots, and the series takes at least five weeks to complete. After the first dose, there’s a three-week wait before the second dose is administered. After the second dose, recipients are not considered “fully vaccinated” for another two weeks.
“Parents would need to look at the first day of school and back up five weeks from that,” Moffit said. For school districts that start at the end of August, that could be this week or next.
Camille Caldera can be reached at email@example.com.