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Should your teen get the COVID-19 vaccine now that it's authorized for ages 12 to 15?

Austin American-Statesman logo Austin American-Statesman 5/13/2021 Nicole Villalpando, Austin American-Statesman
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The FDA approved emergency use of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 on Monday. This follows the emergency use authorization of the vaccine for people ages 16 and older in December. The CDC recommended the vaccine for this age group on Wednesday, opening up the Pfizer vaccine appointments and walk-up vaccination sites to anyone 12 and older. 

a close up of a bottle: Empty vials of the Pfizer vaccines wait to be discarded as volunteers fill syringes for doses to administer during a drive-thru vaccine center held at the Manor high school stadium, on Thursday, April 1, 2021, in Austin, Texas. The vaccine center provided over 200 vaccines and will continue through Saturday. © Rodolfo Gonzalez for American-Statesman Empty vials of the Pfizer vaccines wait to be discarded as volunteers fill syringes for doses to administer during a drive-thru vaccine center held at the Manor high school stadium, on Thursday, April 1, 2021, in Austin, Texas. The vaccine center provided over 200 vaccines and will continue through Saturday.

The Moderna vaccine and the Johnson & Johnson vaccines are still approved for emergency use in people ages 18 and older.

a person holding a baby: If the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seconds the Food and Drug Administration's decision to expand emergency use of the vaccine in children, those ages 12 to 15 could begin getting Pfizer shots within days. © Getty If the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seconds the Food and Drug Administration's decision to expand emergency use of the vaccine in children, those ages 12 to 15 could begin getting Pfizer shots within days.

Both Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have been testing the vaccines on children ages 12 to 17. Moderna and Pfizer also recently started testing the vaccine on children ages 6 months to 11 years old. These child studies include different dosing than the doses in studies on people ages 12 to adult. 

Pfizer has said it expects to release the results of its children's study in September. 

Why should I vaccinate my teen?

Parents now have to consider whether to get their teens vaccinated. 

The Kaiser Family Foundation found that of parents of children ages 12 to 15, 3 in 10 said they will get their children vaccinated right away once it is available for their teens; 26% said they would wait to see how it is working; 18% will get their child vaccinated only if their school requires it; and 23% said they won't get their child vaccinated. 

Some people might say children don't get COVID-19 or don't get very sick from the virus.

"This narrative is not true," said Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the center for vaccine development at Texas Children’s Hospital. 

Right now, with the variant that is circulating, doctors are seeing young adults and adolescents get very sick, as well as have long-haul COVID-19, in which the effects linger for months. 

"Even early on, we saw a lot of adolescents in pediatric ICUs across the country," Hotez said.

Teens and young adults also are inherently more at risk of getting COVID-19 because of their social patterns.

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"We knew through the whole pandemic that teenagers were much more likely to get COVID-19," said Dr. Elizabeth Knapp, because they attend larger group events and they're in larger schools than their elementary school siblings. Knapp is a pediatrician and co-chief of pediatrics at Austin Regional Clinic,

The biggest increases in cases are being seen among this age group, said Dr. Brian Metzger, medical director of infectious diseases at St. David's Medical Center, because the virus doesn't have anywhere else to go. 

In Travis County, 60% of adults have had at least one vaccine dose already. Many adults have immunity either from the vaccine or from having had COVID-19, so now the virus is looking for new hosts. That means children 16 and younger, who haven't had access to the vaccine. 

Metzger makes this case for vaccinating teens and children when it's available: The vaccine is an opportunity to prevent illness, even if it's mild, in your child. It's also an opportunity to protect your child from becoming that child who needs to be hospitalized or has prolonged COVID-19 symptoms. 

There's also another big reason: preventing your child from becoming a vector. Metzger said he's seen too many cases of older adults in his hospital who became sick from a younger family member.

"It's not something that you want your kids to go though," he said.

Which teens shouldn't be vaccinated?

Just as with adults, there are very few reasons to not get vaccinated. Being allergic to the ingredients in the vaccine would be a reason, but that's pretty rare.

There are no medical reasons to not get vaccinated. But if your child has a pre-existing condition that is worrisome to you, check with your doctor before vaccinating. 

"There's really no reason to not do it," Knapp said. "It makes sense to do it to help your community." 

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What about long-term concerns about vaccine side effects?

We have almost six months of real-world data for adults having the Pfizer vaccine without significant side effects other than what was to be expected — arm soreness or redness, fever and fatigue. 

The study of the Pfizer vaccine in this age group looked at 1,200 adolescents who received the vaccine and the side effects were the same as in the adults. 

The 12 and older group has a similar body type as adults, Knapp said. "The vaccine is safe and effective." 

Dr. Mark Escott, the interim Austin-Travis County health authority, concurred on Tuesday.

"It's a very, very effective vaccine and a very safe vaccine," he said. "This is a decision that individuals, that parents need to make for their children. I can tell you last night and this morning, I've been looking for Pfizer vaccine for my 15-year-old son, so I certainly have confidence in the vaccine. ... My hope is that many others in the community will as well, so we can get our kids vaccinated and move forward in our (quest) for herd immunity."

Becoming part of the vaccine study: Why one Austin mom signed up her three kids in Pfizer coronavirus vaccine trial

One of the conspiracies going around is that the vaccine can cause long term infertility. It is the same false argument that was made against the HPV vaccine, Hotez said. "It comes right out of the antivaccine playbook."

There was no evidence of infertility in the HPV vaccine, which has been effective in countries that have gotten a significant percentage of its population vaccinated, Hotez said. Australia has eliminated cervical cancer because of its high HPV vaccination rates, he said.

What does a world of vaccinated adolescents look like?

Metzger is beginning to see what a vaccinated Austin could look like. In his hospital, he said, he can count the number of COVID-19 cases on one hand, which was not the case until recently. 

He's making plans for his family members, all of whom are vaccinated, to take several trips this summer, compared with last summer when local hospitals were filled with COVID-19 cases, which meant he couldn't travel or take time off. 

Knapp said she sees a world in which teens get to go back to doing what they want to do. "I have lots of patients in their teenage years hoping to rejoin their friends in sports and dance troops," she said, "and this opens it up."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention new guidelines for vaccinated people would apply to teens. Outdoor activities become much easier and can happen without a mask if you are vaccinated and it's not crowded. Inside, vaccinated teens will still need to wear a mask unless everyone is vaccinated or the other party is one other family or teen who is not vaccinated and doesn't live with someone at risk for severe illness. 

More: Fact-check: Is fertility, menstrual cycles 'affected by being around' vaccinated people?

If most most people 12 and older are vaccinated, there's no worry about teens infecting their teachers and staff or fellow high school or most middle school students.

"Large schools become much safer," Knapp said.

It takes the worry out of attending class in-person for this age group and the people in their homes. 

Children who are vaccinated also can avoid some other COVID-19 worries. They won't have to be tested for COVID-19 every time they get a sniffle or a cough from allergies or a common cold, Knapp said.

How to prepare for the vaccine

A lot of children are behind in their wellness visits and other vaccinations, Knapp said. Patients will have to time those other vaccines with the COVID-19 vaccines, because there has to be at least two weeks in between.

Knapp recommends children get caught up with wellness visits and vaccines while waiting to find their COVID-19 shot, which for children ages 12 to 17 will have to be the Pfizer shot — not the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines. 

More vaccine approvals could be on the way

Pfizer is asking the FDA to give permanent approval of its vaccine for those 16 and older instead of emergency use authorization, which it currently falls under.

Once that happens, it opens up the possibility of more companies, schools and venues to require vaccination.

The entry to be able to do what we want to do could be vaccination.

Additional material by staff writer Heather Osbourne

Where to find the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine for your teen

By Wednesday night, vaccine appointments were available at some local CVS, Walgreens, H-E-BWalmart and Randall's locations.

You can log onto their websites and follow the prompts. CVS and Walgreens ask for your child's age before it will find an appointment. Make sure to put in the correct age for your child to be given an appointment for a Pfizer vaccine, not another type. Randall's, Walmart and H-E-B list which vaccine is available at each location. Pick one that says Pfizer. 

If you have a doubt about which vaccine your appointment is for, call before you go. 

Some doctor groups also have begun scheduling their teen patients for COVID-19 vaccines. Call your child's doctor to see if they can offer it to your child.

UT Health Austin has been carrying the Pfizer vaccine and is allowing parents to preschedule their 12 and older child as of Wednesday night. 

The joint vaccine clinic run by Ascension Seton, CommUnityCare Health Centers, and Travis, Bastrop, Hays and Caldwell counties, which is now at the Travis County Expo Center, also has the Pfizer vaccine for ages 12 and older. You do not need an appointment to attend this drive-thru clinic. It is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday and has been running on Fridays and Saturdays as well. A parent or guardian must be with the teen at the time of vaccination

Austin Public Health's mass vaccination sites do not carry the Pfizer vaccine. 

Also check your school district's website. Austin ISD is now offering vaccines to any student 12 and older at its vaccination clinics. You can find those at https://www.austinisd.org/calendar. As of Wednesday, it had not yet converted those clinics, which are appointment preferred, to 12 and up. 

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Should your teen get the COVID-19 vaccine now that it's authorized for ages 12 to 15?

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