COVID-19 vaccine site at Fremont High School.
Vaccination efforts are shifting increasingly to smaller community-based sites, including schools. Credit: Amir Aziz

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization today for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to be given to anyone age 12 or older. The decision follows clinical trials that showed it to be safe and 100% effective at keeping young people out of the hospital or dying from COVID-19. Until today, only people over the age of 16 have been eligible for vaccination.

It’s welcome news for families that have been trying to make summer plans. Being vaccinated opens up more opportunities for vacations, road trips, gatherings, and more. 

Peter Merholz says his 12-year-old son wants to get vaccinated and he’s supportive because he trusts the guidance and testing that has deemed the Pfizer vaccine safe. 

“We’re bummed that finding summer camps is such a challenge, with many still up in the air. We don’t have big travel plans, as we usually go to Canada every summer, and cannot for obvious reasons,” he said, referring to travel restrictions the Canadian government has imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19. “That said, we do attend Lair of the Golden Bear family camp, and are eager to get back there this year.”

Ana Lara says she and her husband will likely let their 14- and 15-year-olds get vaccinated as soon as they can. She and her husband are already vaccinated with Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, respectively. 

“My immediate family are all vaccinated except for the younger ones,” Lara said. “We want to travel to visit family in Mexico.” 

For now, Lara’s kids have remained at home doing distance learning until schools fully reopen in the fall.

“I know it can be scary but in the end our kids want to do it because they want to go back to ‘normal’ and we did it because we wanted to be with our extended family,” Lara said.

Pfizer still needs approval from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California Department of Public Health to expand its use, but vaccines in children as young as 12 could begin as early as this week.

As of Monday, 73% of Alameda County residents over the age of 16 have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with more than 51% of them considered fully vaccinated, according to the county health department.

As The Oaklandside previously reported, vaccine supply has caught up with demand in California and beyond. That means once hard to find appointments are now going unused. As a result, mass vaccination sites like the Oakland Coliseum will be closing by the end of the month and vaccination efforts are shifting to focus on smaller, more targeted sites, including more shots being delivered through the healthcare system.

Aneeka Chaudhry, assistant agency director at Alameda County Health Care Services Agency, says there are about 85,000 kids aged 12 to 17 in Alameda County, or only about 5% of the county’s total population. Since not all are expected to get their shots right away, the county says it has enough Pfizer doses on hand to cover those who are ready to get their shots.

“We’ve done a lot of pre-work in talking about the vaccine,” said Dr. Ida Oberman, founder and executive director of Community School for Creative Education, a TK-8 school with 256 students in the San Antonio neighborhood. 

Oberman says for a school community hard hit by the virus, the strongest message is that getting vaccinated makes the whole community stronger. Oberman is planning a vaccine clinic that will be located at the school where students, staff, and parents can get information on everything from the effectiveness of mask wearing to how to access the vaccine. 

“We want to have it here,” Oberman said about the vaccine. “It’s a matter of time.”

Lillian Hsu is principal of Latitude High School in Fruitvale, where the majority of students still attend class remotely. On May 1, they hosted a Curative walk-up clinic, hoping to get 20 shots of the Pfizer vaccine into 20 arms of parents and older students in their TK-12 network. They successfully gave out 120 doses. That’s no small feat, considering the Coliseum’s traffic is down to about 400 doses a day. 

“It was really exciting,” Hsu said. School staff were on hand to help with identification requirements as their students lined up to get shots. (Alameda County does not require proof of identity or age to be government issued.) Hsu attributes the good turnout to the fact that people didn’t need a car to get a shot. 

“All of that made it feel safer and more like a community event,” Hsu said. “A lot of our families don’t drive.” 

Latitude will be hosting another pop-up clinic at the school on May 22, where second Pfizer doses will be given out, but Hsu says there will be first doses available then as well. By then, students aged 12 and older will most likely be eligible for the vaccine, so Hsu and others are hoping for the same level of turnout. 

Disinformation about the virus and vaccines remains a problem, especially on social media. Incorrect information about vaccine side effects has proliferated on TikTok, which is especially popular with youth. Latitude High staff, in response, have been debunking myths, including by having 10th graders research and present projects on COVID-19 and the vaccines. Some teachers have developed modules to help children understand how the vaccines work and how they can protect students, their families and their communities. 

Mara Larsen-Fleming, health director for the Oakland Unified School District, says pulling vaccine services away from places like the Oakland Coliseum and other large sites allows healthcare officials to make the conversation more intimate and help families make decisions in settings where trust is already established. 

“I think that it’s incredibly important that we use these relationships,” Larsen-Fleming said. “There are folks that have questions and I know it’s not always an easy decision.” 

One lingering logistical issue in the vaccine effort is requiring parents to be present when giving consent for their child. “That’s definitely going to be a challenge for some families, so we’re waiting on guidance,” Larsen-Fleming said. Currently, parents are required to accompany their children to a vaccine site to give consent in person.

This poses a problem for minors who want to get their shots but their parents won’t accompany them to a vaccine clinic, whether it is because of scheduling or ideological reasons. What options do they have in trying to become vaccinated during a pandemic?

“I’m sorry to say the answer is not much,” said Lois Weithorn, a law professor and Harry & Lillian Hastings research chair at UC Hastings School of Law.

California only currently allows vaccine exemptions for minors as young as 12 who consent to medical services to prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) without their parents’ consent, including the hepatitis B and HPV vaccine. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed that bill into law in 2011. The hepatitis B and HPV vaccines have full FDA approval, while the three COVID-19 vaccines are only under emergency use authorization. That leaves the vaccines in a legal “gray area.”

“When there is FDA approval, it tends to be very specific on what ages and what uses [are allowed],” Weithorn said. 

Getting the COVID vaccines on the list of vaccines that minors in California can get without parental consent would require jumping over the usual regulatory hurdles, such as full approval from the FDA and the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and approval from a state’s health department. 

There are other options, such as a child emancipating themselves from their parents, but Weithorn says doing so just to get a vaccine is “expreme” and “problematic.”

“In California, the legislature is the way to go because there aren’t legal options for them to get vaccinated,” Weithorn said, adding Washington, D.C. passed a law late last year allowing children as young as 11 receive vaccinations without their parents consent. “It’s a pretty path-breaking bill.”
Until California passes a similar law, Weithorn recommends people check out, which supplies minors with information about their rights to get vaccinated where they live. “I think it’s great for teens to be able to educate themselves,” she said.