Children as young as 12 can start receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID vaccine in Massachusetts on Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker announced Wednesday, pending an expected final go ahead from federal regulators.
The state plans to use a variety of strategies to reach 12 to 15 year olds, including pediatricians, regional vaccination clinics and pharmacies.
Teenagers want to get vaccinated against COVID-19 for a variety of reasons. Cynthia Zhang, a high school senior, says she’s mainly getting it because New York University, where she’ll be attending college in the fall, requires it. The opportunity for things that might have been possible had the vaccine come sooner – like prom and some sports seasons – are already long gone.
“I’m sure that getting the vaccine will allow me to feel safer spending time with people I love,” Zhang adds. “Anyway, I’m just here to get it and move on with my life.”
It’s the adults who are bursting with joy watching the youngsters get jabbed at a regional clinic for high school students on Saturday in Westborough, and none more so than Shaun McAuliffe, the health director for Hopkinton. The town has already gotten more than 80% of most of the older age groups with at least one vaccine, McAuliffe says. Now that 12 to 15 year olds can get vaccinated,
he’s hoping herd immunity is on the horizon for his community.
“This is where the opportunity lies. This is where I think making an effort to get this younger population vaccinated will really make a significant dent in the illness we have,” he says, his eyes twinkling.
Officials are hopeful that encouraging middle school and high school students who are eligible to get the vaccine will also eliminate the occasional K-12 school cluster, which cause considerable consternation for communities when they pop up.
The week after spring break, for example, 22 students tested positive for the coronavirus at Hopkinton High School. Many parents began getting nervous when email after email informed them of a new COVID-19 case in the school. Carol Cavanaugh, the Hopkinton schools superintendent, took solace when it appeared that the virus was not actually transmitting in the school.
“It was very stressful because it was an anomaly for us,” says Cavanaugh. “Parents will be looking at your dashboard numbers and their first assumption is that the virus is being transmitted in school. And that was not happening during that week.”
Cavanaugh thinks the cases were really from kids who got infected over spring break, and then tested positive when they returned.
Since then, the cluster has waned, and last week the high school found zero new cases. Cavanaugh credits students and staff who closely follow masking and distancing rules.
“I’ll be really honest, I would have thought schools would have been the biggest super spreaders in history," Cavanaugh says. "The truth of the matter is, we’ve been doing a really good job. Our kids come in, they wear masks. They keep their masks on.”
That’s generally true across the state. Health officials have identified more than 17,000 current COVID-19 clusters, and just 57 are associated with K-12 schools. Transmission of the virus in schools is more the exception than the norm, according to Dr. Andrea Ciaranello, an infectious disease physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“That’s really true as long as people are able to keep up with mitigation,” says Ciaranello. “People have actually transmitted to each other much more outside of school than inside school.”
That’s where vaccinating kids 12 and older might make the most difference. If enough take advantage of their new eligibility, transmission could plummet when kids and teens are socializing after class,
and prevent clusters from popping up at schools in the first place.
“I’ve been really struck by the impressive decline of school-associated cases in staff. I imagine we’ll see something very similar in the students as they start to become vaccinated as well,” Ciaranello says.
Safety trials show the vaccines work just as well for teens as they do for adults, with teens experiencing the same mild to moderate side effects as those 18 or older. What’s less clear is how many parents will hesitate to get their kids the shots without more long-term data. Health officials say that might be one the last hurdles to herd immunity.
“If we get this group, I really think we’re going to have a shot at returning to normal,” says Hopkinton’s McAuliffe.
Carlos Matos, a high school senior, says life starting to look a bit more normal is one reason why he wanted to get vaccinated. Sitting with his mom after getting his first shot of the Pfizer vaccine, he daydreams about some of the things he’ll do once he’s fully vaccinated.
“Hang out with my friends. Go eat some food. Watch some movies. It’ll be fun,” he says.
“Yes! It’s so exciting,” Matos’ mom, Sandra Acosta, chimes in.
This article was originally published on May 12, 2021.
This segment aired on May 12, 2021.