Hawaii health authorities may begin giving COVID-19 shots to children as young as 12 as soon as next week, officials said Monday, after the Food and Drug Administration expanded the age of eligibility for the Pfizer vaccine.

The decision comes as Hawaii and other states are eager to inoculate as many people as possible in a bid to achieve the widespread immunity required for a return to normalcy, including the reopening of schools.

State Department of Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Char said officials have the infrastructure in place to begin vaccinating younger teens as soon as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issues a formal recommendation.

“We already have sites taking appointments for 12 to 15 year olds, and hopefully by the end of the week we’ll be able to roll out more vaccines for the younger population,” Char told reporters Monday in a video conference.

Lanai High and Elementary School students arrive in the morning before school starts.
Nearly all COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers have ongoing clinical trials that could expand eligibility to younger people this year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The FDA said earlier Monday that it has expanded the emergency use authorization for the vaccine from Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech to include adolescents as young as 12. It previously was approved for people who are at least 16 years old.

The CDC has an advisory committee that will meet Wednesday to discuss the issue, Char said.

The decision will be a key stepping stone to safely reopening schools in the fall after months of online learning to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Hawaii has an estimated 55,000 students in the 12-15 age group, one of the largest cohorts in public and charter schools, Department of Education spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said.

She pointed out that the state already has scheduled school-based vaccine clinics, and Hawaii Pacific Health dispatched its mobile vaccine clinic to Oahu high schools last week.

“It’s good that we already have school based clinics set up for next week,” Kalani said. “Our goal is that for the upcoming school year all fully reopen for in-person learning so this vaccination would only help support that goal and effort to ensure all of our campuses are a safe space for learning.”

A Boost For Reopening Schools

In light of the anticipated expansion, the DOE is looking at increasing the number of appointment slots at the planned clinics to accommodate the younger students, she said.

The FDA has approved three vaccines for emergency use in the United States. But only the Pfizer vaccine is currently authorized for minors, with approval for 16 and 17 year olds granted last month.

Hawaii could get an additional shipment of about 22,000 Pfizer vaccine doses at the end of the week, according to Lt. Gov. Josh Green and DOH Spokesman Brooks Baehr.

That will help in the goal to inoculate the estimated 67,759 people aged 12-16 in the Aloha State, Baehr told Civil Beat.

In an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight program, Green said he is confident Hawaii could reach herd immunity even if states on the mainland do not.

Green, father to a 14-year-old, said the vaccine campaign’s expansion to children will be a game changer for the upcoming school year and will play a key role in stamping out the rapid spread of the virus.

“To break the pattern of spread when they go back to school would be very helpful,” he said. “Much of the country won’t reach herd immunity but we will, I believe.”

To date, approximately 72.6% of all Hawaii residents aged 18 and older have received at least their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, equating to about 1.3 million shots in arms.

“It’s good that we already have school based clinics set up for next week.” — DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani

Last week, Hawaii’s supply of vaccines began to exceed demand for the first time. 

This week, Hawaii ordered all 44,460 Pfizer vaccine doses it was allotted in anticipation of the growing eligibility pool by age, according to Baehr.

However, Hawaii officials skipped about 20,600 of doses from other vaccine manufacturers this week. Hawaii ordered 14,200 of the 32,200 Moderna doses it was offered and none of the 2,600 Johnson & Johnson doses it was offered this week.

Vaccine hesitancy may be playing a role in the slowdown of interest, officials said last week.

Kalani and Char said they do not know yet for sure what the demand for vaccines will look like among the younger age groups.

“Anecdotally I know a lot of schools have been asking for help promoting,” Kalani said. “I don’t think there’s overwhelming demand, but I think there is demand and it’s going to take a little more education and communication on the part of everyone to get folks on board.”

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