Pfizer vaccine file photo

A Thrifty White pharmacist injects the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine into a patient. Eligibility for the Pfizer vaccine expanded to 12- to 15-year-olds this week. 

MANKATO — Mankato vaccine providers are gearing up to start administering Pfizer doses to residents between 12-15 years old after a federal advisory panel this week approved expanded eligibility.

The move on Wednesday by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, or ACIP, opens up COVID-19 vaccinations to about 300,000 more Minnesotans.

On Monday the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine to the 12-15 age group, making ACIP’s endorsement essentially the final hurdle for doses to commence.

In anticipation of the expansion, local clinics immediately started taking bookings Wednesday for upcoming appointments.

“I think this is another way that we can get our kids back to the things they like to do in the safest way we can,” said Dr. Katie Smentek, a pediatrician at Mankato Clinic. “Knowing our kids are vaccinated and protected makes it much easier for them to be going to camp, be going to sleepovers, playing some of those close-contact sports.”

Mankato Clinic plans to start administering doses May 19 at its Children’s Health Center. Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato also expects to soon start administering Pfizer doses to the new age group after taking appointments Wednesday.

“Mayo Clinic sites in the Midwest have expanded their strong recommendations for COVID-19 vaccination to include children ages 12 years and older in accordance with federal and state guidelines,” the health system said in a statement.

Between clinics, pharmacies and public health agencies in the region, most vaccine providers with Pfizer doses could start administering them to the newly eligible group next week, said Eric Weller, coordinator of the South Central Health Care Coalition.

The coalition will facilitate distribution to as many as 14 facilities in the region Monday. In addition, 11 county public health agencies could receive allocations through the coalition depending on their cold-storage capabilities.

Some pharmacies also were booking appointments for Pfizer doses later this week. Thrifty White in Mankato will have more doses in stock Friday, mostly for second-dose appointments that day.

The pharmacy opened some appointment slots for this weekend. Sarah Schmidt, Thrifty White’s regional support pharmacist, said in an email that her hope is to see an influx of interest with the younger age group now eligible.

Susan McCabe booked Saturday first-dose appointments for her children, ages 12 and 14, at Thrifty White in Mankato. The Owatonna mother of two said she trusts the science and had been following progress on studies showing the vaccine was safe for younger age groups.

She and her husband both already received vaccines. Once their children get vaccinated, she said, activities such as art classes and camps seem more possible this summer.

“I’m hoping they can have a normal summer and not worry,” she said.

Despite the drama she sees on Facebook about the vaccine, she said she felt fortunate both of her children are within the newly eligible age group.

“I’m just happy that eligibility is out there for them now,” she said. “I know when they go back to school in the fall they’ll be as protected as they can be.”

Vaccine hesitancy, much of it fueled by misinformation online, continues to make for a tough hill to climb as the state tries to reach its goal of 70% vaccinations among Minnesotans age 16 and older. The state was at 60.7% with at least first doses as of Wednesday, with reduced demand slowing progress in recent weeks.

In south-central Minnesota, about 54.5% of residents 16 and older received first doses so far. Counties within the region range from as high as 62% vaccination rates in Brown County to as low as 45.1% in Sibley County.

Vaccine progress from here is going to be more incremental than it was earlier this year, Weller said.

“We have lots of avenues out there and are really looking at, instead of big clinics, we’ll be looking at pop-up clinics,” he said, mentioning sporting competitions and other events as potential locations. “At this point every dose is a good dose.”

Schools in the region could still fit in first and second doses for students, he added. Summer schools also would offer more options to connect eligible students to vaccine opportunities.

In encouraging people to get vaccinated, he stressed all the vaccines are safe and will help keep variants at bay. Studies have found serious side effects from the vaccine are exceedingly rare, especially when compared to the risks associated with COVID-19.

“With the variants circulating, we want everyone to be vaccinated,” Weller said. “It makes our community safer.”

When Smentek hears misconceptions about the vaccine, she tries to seek specifics on what exactly the person is nervous about. So much of the anti-vaccine information she sees on Facebook and elsewhere, she said, doesn’t have any scientific backing to it.

“As a parent and a pediatrician, I think this is a safe, effective vaccine that I don’t worry about giving to my own kids,” she said.

The immune response children could have to the vaccine — achiness and fatigue in the day or so after the shot — is similar to what some adults experience. As for COVID-19, serious cases may not be common among young people, but they can happen and young people also can spread the illness to more vulnerable people.

Smentek said Mankato Clinic has seen limited examples of young patients with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, adolescents with long-term symptoms, and student-athletes who’ve had to limit exercise because of the illness’ lingering effects.

The next age group researchers are looking into for vaccines are 2- to 11-year-olds, Smentek said. She expects the eligible age range to expand further by September or October.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola

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