BOSTON (WPRI) — While focusing on increasing teen and adolescent vaccinations before it’s time to head back to school, state lawmakers in Massachusetts are also focused on the state’s youngest population.
The Joint Committee on Public Health and the Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management held a public oversight hearing to discuss COVID-19 vaccinations for children.
State health officials noted they were anticipating federal regulators to approve a COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use in children under 12 sometime this fall.
Mass. Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders expressed how the state needs to be prepared to roll out vaccines quickly if emergency use is granted.
“Unlike in the early months of the vaccine rollout, there is now a ready supply of vaccines available,” Sudders said.
“Now we must continue to provide strong public messaging, continue to work with all of our communities to build trust, lean in hard, and be prepared to provide vaccines for our youth,” she continued.
According to the Mass. DPH Weekly COVID-19 Vaccination Report from July 22, 57% of Massachusetts residents 12-15 years old have received at least one dose, compared to 36% nationwide. The report also shows 64% of teens 16-19 years old have received at least one dose, compared to 47% nationally.
“I give you those statistics not to gloat, but to remind us as leaders we have an obligation and an opportunity to lean in even more to get as many people as possible vaccinated,” Sudders said.
According to Sudders, the state actively plans for pediatric vaccinations, including communicating with pediatricians, parents, and schools. The state will continue to think outside the box to increase vaccination rates.
“We will continue to lean in to increase access to vaccines by applying a wide range of strategies and settings from pediatric and primary care offices, to museums, school settings, retail pharmacies, community health centers and anything else in between that makes sense to us,” she said.
According to Mass. DPH Acting Commissioner Margaret Cook, collaborations with pediatricians have led Massachusetts to have one of the highest pediatric vaccination rates in the country.
“Over 95% of all children have their CDC recommended vaccines by the time they enter school,” Cook said.
Cook noted when Pfizer’s emergency use authorization expanded to those 12-15 years old, advisories were issued directly to pediatric providers.
“To date, over 74,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been shipped directly to pediatric practices. More than 65,000 of those doses have already been administered,” she said.
She noted the state is planning to utilize the same strategy when COVID-19 vaccines for those 12 and under are approved. This will make over 880,000 more Massachusetts residents eligible to be vaccinated, according to Cook.
“That will inevitably increase Massachusetts’ already strong vaccination rates. It’s going to reduce the chances of variants, it will provide an extra layer of protection when children return to schools and it will bring the Commonwealth just that much closer to community and herd immunity,” Cook said.
Cook says the state’s “Trust the facts. Get the vax” statewide public awareness campaign has shifted to try and engage with parents.
“We know that parents and guardians have a lot of questions about the vaccine and about getting their kids vaccinated,” Cook said.
The latest public service announcements, according to Cook, feature pediatricians that will speak to parents. She says in addition to Spanish PSAs, ten other languages are available.
Officials say they’re also planning a statewide initiative to increase vaccination rates among students 12-18, which includes an educational awareness campaign, using social media, plus utilizing onsite clinics at schools and mobile clinics at health centers and pediatric practices.
“The Department and DESE are finalizing a second joint letter to superintendents and principals, emphasizing a strong recommendation for vaccinations, a formal call to action to host onsite clinics at schools, especially for children who get their primary care at schools, and target metrics for both student and teacher staff vaccination rates,” Cook said.
Cook also noted once the school year begins and children are back in the classroom setting, testing will be free and available to all schools