Nearly three weeks ago, Brandee Jasmine Mimitzraiem and her son waited.
They knew the Federal Drug Administration had just authorized giving the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine to 12- to 15-year-olds. They knew the Black Clergy of Lincoln, a loosely organized group that meets regularly, was sponsoring a clinic at City Impact. And the pastor at Lincoln’s Quinn Chapel was determined.
“I wanted my son vaccinated for his protection and for the protection of his younger brother, who is medically fragile,” Mimitzraiem said in an email. “The sooner he is fully vaccinated, the sooner he can get back to being a child and the more relaxed his brother can be.”
Pastor John Harris, part of the Black Clergy of Lincoln, said they had been watching news reports of the emergency authorization and were waiting for confirmation from the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department.
He told Mimitzraiem he would call her when he got word — she and her 12-year-old son Salahaldin came anyway and waited.
The clinic was open to anyone from 3-7 p.m., but officials encouraged Lincoln’s African American community to come and get vaccinated. By about 4 p.m., Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department Director Pat Lopez showed up, Harris said, and within about a half-hour gave the official go-ahead for kids to be vaccinated.
“When I knew it had actually happened it was quite a joyous thing,” Harris said.
Salahaldin — who said he wanted to get vaccinated to protect his 9-year-old brother, a cancer survivor, and to see his friends — was likely one of the first Nebraskans in that age group to get vaccinated, Lopez told the City Council days later.
Harris was glad the clergy group — and the patrons it serves — was able to make it happen.
“We were excited that we were able to provide this service in such a way that it would make history in some way,” he said.
The fact that the clinic coincided with emergency authorization for kids was significant, Harris said, but it wasn't publicized, because organizers didn’t know when the authorization might come.
That didn't seem to matter.
“To our amazement, more and more parents started bringing their kids in,” he said. “I was standing at the front door and there was just kid after kid in that age range.”
One young man asked his mother to bring him. Another said he wanted to be vaccinated so he could spend more time with his grandparents, Harris said.
By the end of the clinic, 219 people had been vaccinated. Harris isn’t sure how many 12- to 15-year-olds were vaccinated that day, but more than organizers anticipated.
To date, nearly 4,300 of the 16,285 children in that age group in Lancaster County have gotten at least one shot — about 26%, according to the local health department.
That’s good news — and a relief, undoubtedly, to parents anxious to allow their kids to resume more normal activities, safely.
But what about the other 48,000 children in the county under 12 years old?
What about all the grandparents (including this reporter) now fully vaccinated who want to hug their grandkids? What about the parents still trying to figure out the safest way forward?
Kari Simonsen, chair of the University of Nebraska Medical Center Department of Pediatrics, and pediatrician-in-chief for Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, had some good news: testing on younger children is underway, and Children’s Hospital will participate.
The Omaha hospital will begin enrolling participants next week and has more than enough potential subjects, Simonsen said. Families and their children will be selected by lottery.
The trials will divide the testing into different age groups: starting with 5- to 11-year-olds, then 2- to 4-year-olds, and then children 6 months to 2 years.
Children’s is part of a global study, she said, and some sites already have begun testing. They hope to have data on the effectiveness by the end of the year.
The vaccines would then move to the FDA for emergency authorization, assuming the data shows the vaccine to be effective for kids those ages.
So what should parents (and grandparents) do in the meantime?
Scientists are still learning about whether people who are fully vaccinated can shed the virus, though it seems less likely, Simonsen said.
That means if everyone in a family is vaccinated with no symptoms, it’s OK to be together, unmasked.
“But there’s still a lot of room for personal choice there,” she said, if family members are immunocompromised, for instance.
In public, it’s safer for unvaccinated children to be masked. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends children 2 and older wear masks — essentially at an age where they can take it off and put it on by themselves, she said.
In some cases, she said, parents or whole families will mask up when they go out in public — a way to be role models for their youngest kids.
Bottom line: it’s riskier for kids now, because communities are opening up and kids are still susceptible to the virus, though what’s happening in individual communities should also play into families’ decision.
“I think there are a lot of hard family decisions,” Simonsen said. “There is some risk for little ones. They do seem not to get as sick on the whole, but they can ... so I think families need to be thoughtful about what activities are OK with them and what they want to defer for now.”
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