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Health and Medicine

As vaccine availability for kids expands, rates vary across California

Dr. Jane Birschbach, MD, right, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Barrett Flesh at the Deschutes County Public Health Department in Bend, Ore., Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021.

In wealthy, coastal Marin County, nearly 99% of kids 12 to 17 had at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, and San Francisco County is at 95% for the same age group. That’s more than double the rate of those vaccinated in the same age group in rural, northern counties like Lassen, Plumas and Tehama , where fewer than 40% of teenagers are vaccinated.

As news came out in May that the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine would be available for teens, James Frazee said he poured over studies to weigh the benefits of getting his 13-year-old son the jab.

Frazee, a community college professor who is vaccinated, said he came away unconvinced.

“The scientific literature doesn’t make a case for vaccinating him,” Frazee said. Like some other parents, Frazee argues that children aren’t as affected by COVID-19 as adults, and that possible side effects from the vaccine — as rare as they may be — outweigh can be more harmful.

But the vast majority of scientists, pediatricians and other health professionals strongly disagree, as recent evidence shows the virus can be a threat to children — long-term symptoms, household transmission and infection — even if the overall risk for severe illness remains low.

Still, Frazee is one of the hundreds of Sacramento parents that have so far decided against vaccinating their kids against COVID-19 — despite school requirements to do so, as well as evidence that suggests the vaccine works for children.

Early demand for the vaccine among teenagers in Sacramento County is lagging well behind statewide rates, according to data from the California Department of Public Health. So far, nearly 64% of Sacramentans ages 12 to 17 are at least partially vaccinated. Statewide, about 71% are.

Dr. Dean Blumberg, the chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Health, said there are several reasons parents have chosen not to vaccinate their children, including low risk of severe disease and fear of long-term side effects, like myocarditis.

Blumberg insisted that the benefits of getting the vaccine far outweigh the risks of staying unvaccinated.

“We've got more safety data with this vaccine than with any vaccine in human history,” he said.

In May, Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine received approval for use in those 12 and older. Regulators with the Federal Drug Administration last week authorized booster shots of the vaccine for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Still, despite the wide access, vaccination rates vary widely among teenagers across the state. In the wealthy, coastal Marin County, nearly 99% of kids 12 to 17 had at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, and San Francisco County is at 95% for the same age group.

That’s more than double the rate of those vaccinated in the same age group in several California counties. Rural, northern counties like Lassen, Plumas and Tehama have vaccinated fewer than 40% of their teenage residents. Central Valley counties have fallen behind the statewide rate as well. In Merced, 49% of 12- to 17-year-olds had received at least one dose of the vaccine so far.

At this point in the pandemic, Blumberg said parents are making a binary choice.

“There's no question in my mind now that everybody is going to either be vaccinated or they're going to get COVID,” Blumberg said.

Sacramento County vaccine coordinator Rachel Allen said it’s hard for her to “pinpoint exactly the reason why” some Sacramento parents have decided not to vaccinate their children.

In a meeting last week, Allen stressed the need for teenagers to get vaccinated “not just for their health, but to protect their families and those they come into contact with. [To] keep them in school and allow them to continue to play sports and participate in activities.”

In October, Sacramento City Unified School District officials adopted a vaccine requirement for all student and staff members by Nov. 30, following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pending mandate that all K-12 students be vaccinated once full federal approval is given to their age group.

Under the district’s guidelines, eligible students who have not submitted proof of vaccination or a valid exemption by Jan. 31 will be moved to remote learning. As of Dec. 14, only 43% of district students have submitted that proof.

“A vaccine requirement is the path forward to keeping our schools open and increasing immunity,” SCUSD superintendent Jorge A. Aguilar said in a statement.

Allen with the county said boosters and vaccines for all age groups are especially important in protecting against the Omicron variant, which was recently discovered in West Sacramento.

Allen assured concerned parents that the COVID-19 is safe for school-aged kids.

“Millions of doses have been safely administered to children in this age group,” she said. “The risks of COVID illness far outweigh the risks of vaccines. ... This is another vaccine, just like the other ones that you've given your children to protect them against serious disease and illness. This one is added to the list, and it's really important.”

A majority of Sacramento parents have gotten their children vaccinated.

Before recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Stefani Robinson was on the fence about getting her 11- and 13-year-old sons vaccinated against COVID-19. But after a conversation with her doctor, she was convinced otherwise.

As soon as her sons became eligible, she said, Robinson piled them into the car and drove over to a nearby CVS Pharmacy to get the shot.

“Feeling like [my kids have] a little extra protection is good,” Robinson said.

As parents grapple with the choice to vaccinate their children, California continues to move forward with mandates to protect residents as COVID-19 case rates increase. This week, state health officials announced a universal masking mandate for people in public indoor spaces.

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