Luci Guardino, 11, receives her first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as part of a trial
Luci Guardino, 11, receives her first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in June as part of a clinical trial at Kaiser Permanente sites in Northern California.
(Kaiser Permanente)
K-12 Education

UPDATE: Approval one step closer for Pfizer vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds; here’s what to expect in Santa Cruz

As the FDA prepares to approve an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine for younger children, Santa Cruz county officials and parents are not only preparing for the influx of people seeking appointments, but they’re also adjusting to a new phase of the pandemic.

UPDATE: This Oct. 19 story has been updated to reflect a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel’s endorsement of the vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds on Tuesday, Oct. 26; full approval by the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention remained pending.

Abi and Adah Mansfield, age 9 and 10, respectively, were jealous of their 12-year-old sister, Bethany, when she became eligible for and got Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.

The sisters, who attend Santa Cruz Montessori School, will soon all be vaccinated, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine for ages 5 to 11 at the end of this month. Santa Cruz County officials estimate that the first doses could be given to that age group by the end of the first week of November.

“I think it’s the right thing to do to make sure we don’t spread it to more vulnerable populations,” said mother Deauna Mansfield. “And you know, [the kids] are over it. They’re ready to go back to normal.”

Santa Cruz public health and education officials are preparing for the authorization by coordinating the management of vaccine clinics in schools and hosting webinars the week of Oct. 25 to help answer the community’s questions. They say parents and guardians are mostly eager to sign their children up for the shot, while few are still concerned about its safety.

Santa Cruz County spokesperson Jason Hoppin told Lookout that because the vaccine has been shown to be effective and safe, vaccine rates are high and vaccine supply is stable, the approach to administering it is evolving.

“So what’s happening is, this vaccine is becoming like every other vaccine, where you would just go to your health care provider to get the vaccine,” he said Monday. “And that’s how I think most parents are going to get this one.”

Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah said that in addition to going to one’s doctor to get information about the vaccine, parents can go to their schools and the county office of education. Because the vaccine has not been authorized for ages 5 to 11 just yet, officials don’t have an exact date for the opening of vaccine clinics, which will be offered at a mixture of elementary school sites and drive-thru locations.

“The goals that public health has set for us is to reach 40% of that age group, 5- to 11-year-olds, before the end of December,” Sabbah told Lookout on Monday, adding that he hopes to surpass that figure.

A drive-thru vaccination clinic at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in Watsonville
When the vaccine is authorized for children 5 to 11, it will be distributed at a mix of elementary schools and drive-thru sites, county superintendent Faris Sabbah said.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

There are about 21,814 children ages 5 to 11 in Santa Cruz County, according to Dr. David Ghilarducci, Santa Cruz County deputy health officer.

He told Lookout that currently 75% of children 12 to 15 years old have received at least one shot. By reaching that same figure for children ages 5 to 11, the county could increase its total vaccination rate by 6%. As of Tuesday, 71.4% of the county’s total population had received at least one dose, with 66.5% fully vaccinated.

County officials said they understand that some parents might still be worried about the safety of the vaccine.

“I think it’s natural to have a concern,” said Ghilarducci. “And I think it’s important to get unbiased and reliable information when you’re making a decision like this.”

Local chiropractor Krista Healy told Lookout her 10- and 12-year-old children, who go to school in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, will not be vaccinated and she intends to get an exemption.

“I personally think that’s a bad idea for multiple reasons,” she said. Primarily, she said, she is concerned that studies have not had enough time to test for adverse effects.

San Lorenzo Valley Unified Superintendent Christopher Schiermeyer addressed parents who are expressing similar concerns in his district in a letter released to families on Sunday. His message came amid calls by parents on social media to participate in a statewide protest and walkout denouncing Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement that the COVID-19 vaccine would be added to the already required list of vaccines students must have to attend in-person school.

A group of about 40 to 50 people, according to Sabbah and social media posts, held a protest Monday against vaccine mandates.

“We understand that families and students may have strong emotions and questions about COVID safety measures, including vaccine and testing requirements,” Schiermeyer wrote in the letter sent to families. “However, keeping children home from school to protest a COVID vaccine requirement announced by Governor Gavin Newsom, as posts on some social media outlets are suggesting, would only result in lost learning time for our students.”

He added in the letter that the school district can’t interfere with the governor’s proposition.

The requirement wouldn’t be implemented in schools until the vaccines are fully authorized by the FDA.

Long Beach Department of Health & Human Services holds an evening COVID-19 vaccination clinic
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Ghilarducci said it’s a complicated choice parents and guardians navigate, as younger children are less likely to develop severe symptoms from COVID-19. However, some children do get sick and die from the illness, he said, and it’s still not known why some do and some don’t.

“We just don’t understand the virus well enough,” Ghilarducci. “But what we can say is that this formulation of the vaccine has been tested on millions and millions of people over the past almost two years,” he said, adding that there aren’t concerns over adverse effects in the short or long term.

He also noted that although the risk for serious illness is lower for kids, they can pass COVID-19 on to others, to people who are and aren’t vaccinated.

“So [getting vaccinated] is important going forward, if we’re going to control this virus. I don’t think we’re ever going to get rid of it. It’s going to become an endemic virus, just like colds and flus are now,” Ghilarducci said. “But the only way we’re going to be able to get back to normal is to get as many people in the population vaccinated.”

Sabbah said the County Office of Education is planning on hosting two webinars the week of Oct. 25: one on Tuesday, Oct. 26, in Spanish, and one on Thursday, Oct. 28, in English.