Access to the coronavirus vaccine could soon expand to younger residents, a welcome sign for Minnesota health officials, as Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday painted the picture of open stadiums and community pools this summer.
The Food and Drug Administration is expected to authorize the use of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine as early as next week for adolescents ages 12 to 15, opening the fight against COVID-19 up to millions more Americans, and reaching an age group that is increasingly contracting the virus in Minnesota.
State Health Commissioner Jan Malcom said Tuesday that an expansion would be a “really welcome development and a significant step forward” considering the amount of recent cases from middle and high school students.
Since the pandemic began, Minnesotans 19 and under accounted for 18 percent of the state’s total cases, but since April 1, have represented about 26 percent of new infections. The vaccine rollout schedule, new variants and increased student testing all play a factor in the uptick among younger people, said Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann of the Minnesota Department of Health, during a conference call Tuesday.
“We are hopeful there will be an announcement next week,” she said, referring to the 12 to 15 age group, while noting residents 16 and over can currently receive the vaccine. “That would give us a boost for that age group.”
Vaccinating children is a key milestone toward reaching herd immunity levels — about 70 percent of the population — and reducing hospitalization and death rates.
Pfizer said late last month that adolescents in the company’s clinical trial showed strong antibody responses and about the same side effects as people ages 16 to 25.
Prospects of vaccine accessibility comes with the end of school just around the corner and present a long-awaited outcome for parents anxious to inoculate their children before a slate of summer activities and the start of next school year.
Hopes for a more normal summer increased Tuesday when Walz said he would make an announcement Thursday on loosened restrictions that “will go a long way to moving things forward.” In previous days, he’s floated the likelihood of a “normal” Minnesota State Fair if recent progress continues.
"I think Minnesotans can start assuming they will have a very normal looking summer," Walz said during a press conference at a Hopkins elementary school.
MDH reported 998 new COVID-19 infections Tuesday and 11 new deaths with infection, hospitalization and intensive care rates all on the decline, though not quite out of the “caution range,” Malcolm noted.
Locally, St. Louis County reported 38 new cases Tuesday and surpassed the 100,000 milestone for residents receiving at least one vaccine dose. More than 46,000 residents are fully vaccinated, according to county data updated May 2.
Of those eligible for the vaccine across Minnesota, 59 percent of the state’s population have been inoculated with at least one dose and about 45 percent of them are fully vaccinated, but new immunization rates have plateaued in recent weeks due to decreased demand and hesitancy, mirroring a trend across the U.S.
Health officials said the success of the next vaccination phase will be harder to measure as they begin to shift the department’s strategy from waiting for vaccine seekers to come to them, toward going out and targeting people with limited access.
The strategic shift is likely to involve vaccine accessibility at popular local events like county fairs and sports games, to name a few, but also through better outreach and more lead time to local organizations on temporary vaccine clinic plans. MDH officials also said health care clinics broaching the vaccine conversation with patients during routine visits or other procedures could have an impact in the coming months.
“As we move forward, looking at the metrics, the successes will be harder to come by in this phase,” Ehresmann said. “We’re going to celebrate all of them. If we go up by a percentage point, that’s a big deal, because the work to reach people is going to be a bit harder in this stage.”