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Kids 12 and up can get a COVID vaccine. Here’s what that means in Tampa Bay.

Many see a double win: more control over the virus and a measure of freedom that younger adolescents haven’t seen in a long time.
Groups of younger people make their way through the parking lot and to the entrance at the FEMA-run vaccination site located at the Tampa Greyhound Track, on the first day the eligibility age dropped to 18 and up, Monday, April 5, 2021 in Tampa.
Groups of younger people make their way through the parking lot and to the entrance at the FEMA-run vaccination site located at the Tampa Greyhound Track, on the first day the eligibility age dropped to 18 and up, Monday, April 5, 2021 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published May 12
Updated May 12

Nicole Boyle can’t wait for the day when all her children can be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The 43-year-old Tarpon Springs mom said her twin 12-year-old daughters and 7-year-old son have missed out on group sports, dinners at restaurants, get-togethers with friends and brick-and-mortar classes during the pandemic in a bid to limit their exposure to the virus.

Now, with at least one COVID-19 vaccine available for kids as young as 12, Boyle said her family feels hopeful for a return to normalcy.

“It will give them freedom they haven’t had in a long time,” Boyle said.

Related: A guide to finding a coronavirus vaccine in Tampa Bay and Florida

Wednesday’s announcement that a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committee recommended the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine in children 12 and older brought relief to some families of teens and preteens weary of worrying about the pandemic.

The authorization would mean that 87 percent of Floridians are eligible for COVID-19 vaccine shots, with roughly 970,000 children in the state newly eligible for doses.

Experts say getting all those children vaccinated will be a challenge, in part due to continued vaccine hesitancy as well as logistical issues such as how to connect families with the Pfizer shots.

About 30 percent of parents of children ages 12 to 15 say they plan to get their child vaccinated right away, while another 26 percent are taking the wait-and-see approach, according to a survey released last week by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That survey found 18 percent of parents of children in that age group would only get their kids vaccinated if the school required it and 23 percent said they would not let their child get a COVID-19 shot.

Attitudes may shift as children start receiving vaccines, though, said Ashley Kirzinger, associate director for public opinion and survey research for the foundation. She said she expects something similar to when vaccines began rolling out among adults, with a growing proportion of people saying they were willing to get the shots over time.

While children generally tend to be less affected by the coronavirus than adults — often reporting mild symptoms when they do get the disease — vaccinating this population is still important to further reduce the spread of the virus and so kids can get back to pre-pandemic activities with less worry that they could be helping to spread the virus to others, experts say.

And some kids can experience severe illness, including long-term problems, from the coronavirus, doctors note. To date, Florida has seen nearly 200,000 coronavirus cases in children from birth to age 14, and more than 1,200 of those children have been hospitalized.

Dr. Christina Canody [Courtesy of BayCare Health System]
Dr. Christina Canody [Courtesy of BayCare Health System]

About 15 percent of the coronavirus cases among children 14 and younger have come in the past six weeks, noted Dr. Christina Canody, medical director for BayCare’s Pediatric Service Line. That’s a higher rate than for cases among all ages.

“That’s the story within the story. … We are really seeing outbreaks in the adolescent population,” Canody said. She said the reason is a combination of more contagious strains of the virus as well as “adults feeling more confident because of vaccination rates” and people moving around and going out more.

With many adults so far choosing not to get vaccinated — thereby making it more difficult to reach herd immunity — the virus will likely continue to circulate in communities “for a long time,” said Dr. Allison Messina, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Allison Messina [Courtesy of Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital]
Dr. Allison Messina [Courtesy of Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital]

“A lot of times people forget that not getting the vaccine is a risk, too,” Messina said. “Not getting the vaccine means always being at risk of getting the actual disease.”

Experts say it may still take a while to reach many of the children now newly eligible, saying outreach and education about the vaccines to both children and their parents are key.

Dr. Toni Richards-Rowley said pediatricians offices are often trusted places for parents to go to ask questions about the vaccines.

Many of the families who come to her Lithia doctor’s office say they are excited about the prospect of being able to vaccinate their kids, she said. For those that are worried, Richards-Rowley said a common concern is about how quickly the vaccines were created.

She tries to explain the process behind the development and testing of the vaccines and says she wouldn’t recommend something that she wouldn’t be comfortable giving herself or her children. (She has two adult children who have gotten the vaccine and two others who are not yet old enough.)

President Joe Biden said earlier this month that his administration was working with pediatricians to get vaccine doses shipped directly to them. But at this point, most of them don’t have access to the Pfizer vaccine, said Richards-Rowley, who is the vice president of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Challenges with large batch sizes and requirements for ultra-cold storage make that difficult.

The Biden administration has also said thousands of pharmacy sites are prepared to immediately begin offering Pfizer doses to younger adolescents.

For instance, Walgreens said Tuesday that it offers Pfizer in more than 60 percent of its stores nationwide and is prepared to administer the vaccines for kids 12 and older. Some other vaccine providers in the state also have said they are ready to begin vaccinating eligible teens and tweens following federal approval.

USF Health said Tuesday that it was already beginning to vaccinate children as young as 12, even before the official recommendation from the CDC.

But not every vaccine provider offers Pfizer, making finding a Pfizer dose more difficult in some counties than others.

And with the clock ticking to get kids vaccinated before school starts again in the fall — and with a CDC recommendation that no other vaccines (such as the required tetanus, diptheria and pertussis, or Tdap, shot) can be given less than two weeks before or after a COVID-19 vaccine shot — experts say it’s crucial to figure out the best ways to reach these younger residents.

Hillsborough County Public Schools, for instance, said it is working with the county health department to schedule vaccine clinics over the summer where parents can bring students to get the vaccine if they’d like their child to receive it. As of Tuesday, school officials in Pinellas and Pasco counties were not planning similar efforts.

Florida requires permission from parents who must be present during the shots.

Dr. Carina Rodriguez, division chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of South Florida, said it’s understandable for parents to have additional concerns about the vaccines when it comes to their children. She said the data so far doesn’t show much difference in vaccine side effects for children compared to adults. She said her office has also spent months debunking incorrect rumors and theories about the vaccines to worried parents.

Rodriguez said it’s important for parents and children to talk to each other about the vaccines, especially since parental consent is required.

“I’m really hopeful that we’ll do this right and we’re able to ... get vaccines to everyone as soon as possible,” Rodriguez said.

Joy Howerton, 13, said she’s excited to be eligible for a coronavirus vaccine.

The St. Petersburg teen wants to be able to see her friends more often and to go back to school in person and to maybe not have to wear a mask at dance practice. You know, to return to normal middle school life.

Joy’s father is a cancer patient and is immunocompromised, said Joy’s mother, Joni James. That’s meant having to limit Joy “more than probably most kids this year,” James said.

James, who works for BayCare, said she talked with Joy’s pediatrician and feels comfortable with Joy getting vaccinated. She and her husband are already vaccinated.

“The vaccine is a step forward,” James said.

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