By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Staff Writer

State public health officials say California is one step closer to being back to “normal” as more children became eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine this week.

Eligibility opened up to young people ages 12-15 on Thursday, less than a month after vaccinations opened to those 16 and older. Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly and state epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan, who are both pediatricians and parents of children in the 12-15 age group, discussed “what this moment means for California” during a briefing hosted by the California Department of Public Health and the Health and Human Services Agency of California.

“We’ve seen over 30 % of 16 and 17 year olds in California receive at least one vaccine, so we’re working hard with a number of the places where young people frequent, whether it’s schools institutes of higher education, using other practices like pediatrics and family practice clinics, ensuring that they are well poised to begin delivering vaccines, as soon as possible,” Dr. Ghaly shared. 

Vaccination, he said, can provide personal protection to the roughly 2.1 million 12 to 15-year-olds across the state. 

“Additionally, an exciting benefit is that we begin to return to more normal activities, whether that’s going to in-person schools or spending time with friends. We know that young people have shouldered a significant burden, throughout COVID; in many ways denied of certain activities, certain milestones, certain important events. 

“Shouldering additional degrees of anxiety and depression and other mental health and behavioral health impacts. The fact that we can now provide a certain degree of confidence protection to those young people to start to resume activities, visit more with friends, visit with families and friends. It’s a tremendous opportunity for that group to sort of experience that sense of normalcy that they have been missing,” Dr. Ghaly said.

Efforts are underway to enroll more providers and clinics that can do these vaccinations for adolescence, Dr. Pan said. Area pharmacies such as CVS, Walgreens and Walmart are also offering the vaccines. Youth will be administered the Pfizer vaccine only.

“The Pfizer vaccine has some unique requirements as far as the ultra cold freezers and the size of the shipments,” Dr. Pan said. “We’re working to purchase optical freezers for those that need it. We are working with organizations that can break down the larger shipments into smaller amounts to provide for those clinics and then really working again with other local health departments, schools, other communities partners to provide vaccines equitably to our underserved youth, including those experiencing homelessness and foster care.”

Sacramento County’s former acting health director Jim Hunt said the County was expecting state funds to come through and help school sites become clinics. School site clinics will be critical in encouraging not only students to get vaccinated, but their entire families, Sacramento County’s Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye said.

“As we approach the end of the school year here, time is of the essence,” County Public Health Program Planner Nick Mori shared.

“We’re hopeful to have as many of these clinics happened in the next few weeks so we can get first doses administered and then of course with Pfizer, three weeks later we’ll be looking at a second dose administration, but we also expect these efforts to continue throughout the summer and as we enter the new school year, into the fall,” Mori continued.

While many youth, including her own children, are eager to get the vaccination because it will mean they can resume their social lives, Dr. Pan says there’s an even bigger issue at hand, that the deadly reality of COVID-19 is still very much a thing.

“I think it’s also really important to remind people that we need to protect young people against the severity and ongoing threat of COVID-19,” she said. 

“We’ve had actually over 500 cases in California alone of serious outcomes, including that multi-symptom inflammatory disease that people have heard about and we are seeing cases increase among younger people both in California and nationally, since they have not had the opportunity to be vaccinated,” the epidemiologist continued. 

“About half of our (serious cases)  were previously healthy, and over half of those have been in the intensive care unit. And sadly, just in California alone we’ve had 21 deaths to date, and the median age of those deaths were 15 year old. This is definitely the age range we want to protect.”

In order to get the vaccine, youth ages 12-15 must either be accompanied by an adult who is able to give consent or written consent must be presented, if a parent or guardian cannot come with the child. Dr. Pan said consent templates will be provided on the MyTurn appoint app. When older youth became eligible, providers have also gotten creative with things like getting consent from a parent through video calling or FaceTime.