Colorado is preparing a major push to vaccinate a quarter million children by the end of January in anticipation that children ages 5 to 11 will be eligible to get the vaccine as soon as next week.
Schools will have a role to play in getting students vaccinated, Gov. Jared Polis said at a press conference Thursday. He also suggested achieving high vaccination rates could allow schools to revisit their mask policies.
The announcement comes as Colorado continues to see high COVID case rates and hospitalizations. Polis said Colorado may ask for federal assistance to staff hospitals and deploy mobile units to treat COVID patients with monoclonal antibodies outside hospital settings, as well as order a pause on some elective surgeries.
Rates of COVID among unvaccinated children have been high all fall as most children attend school in-person and participate in activities without many of the safety restrictions in place last school year. Most large districts have a mask requirement, whether adopted voluntarily or imposed by a local public health department, but there is no state school mask mandate. School outbreaks and COVID cases among children have been higher in districts without mask requirements and with low adult vaccination rates.
More than 479,000 children in Colorado ages 5 to 11 would be eligible for the pediatric vaccine. The state’s goal is to vaccinate half of them with the first of two doses by the end of January 2022. The state has pre-ordered 171,000 pediatric doses and expects to start vaccinating children around Nov. 5.
“We are really excited about this next phase of our COVID vaccination campaign,” said Diana Herrero, deputy director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Division of Disease Control and Public Health Response. “I am personally really excited about this because my daughter is in this next age group that is eligible to be vaccinated.”
Colorado ranks 13th in the nation for vaccinating children 12 to 17, with 54% of eligible teens fully vaccinated.
Herrero described a plan to offer the vaccine at 384 clinic locations and in various settings, including mobile units in buses, pediatricians’ offices, and retail pharmacies, with at least one location in every county.
The first pediatric clinics will be large efforts to vaccinate hundreds or thousands of children a day at community sites that are known and comfortable, such as zoos, children’s museums, and libraries, with evening and weekend hours to accommodate families, officials said. Parents and siblings will also be able to get vaccinated at these events or get booster shots.
“This is a really immense state mobilization to protect our children,” Polis said.
Schools would be part of the second phase of vaccination for children, he said.
“We have offered to every school district that we could support site-based clinics where the school would simply collect permission slips from parents, and we will make that available at that site,” Polis said, adding that county health departments and local hospitals could also run clinics.
Polis said the state was not prepared to announce any school sites Thursday. In the earlier phase of youth vaccination, some schools ran multiple successful clinics. But in more conservative parts of the state, some families reacted poorly to vaccination campaigns at school buildings, and public health officials changed strategies.
Polis said vaccination for children may allow districts to move away from masking. Many districts that started the school year without mask mandates adopted them to reduce quarantines — while in other communities, local health departments required it. Polis’ comments have the potential to reignite the debate. While Polis has repeatedly said that he supports mask-wearing as a personal or local government decision, he’s also expressed sympathy with those concerned they interfere with learning.
“The vaccine is very close to 100% effective at preventing adverse health outcomes and deaths in pediatric patients,” Polis said. “As more and more children are vaccinated, there is the opportunity for school districts to reassess their balance between the other mitigation measures they’re taking, given their new level of protection. I suspect many school districts are eager to do that, eager to get kids protected, and eager to move forward with a more normal learning environment.”
National polls have found fewer than a third of parents plan to get their children vaccinated right away, raising questions about how widespread the protection will be in K-12 classrooms in the coming months. College campuses where the vaccine is required have seen very little COVID.
State officials emphasized that the vaccine is very safe, that children often have even milder side effects than adults, and that side effects are preferable to contracting COVID.
Dr. Lalit Bajaj, pediatric emergency medicine specialist and chief quality and outcomes officer at Children’s Hospital Colorado, described the immense toll COVID has taken on children, from social isolation during remote learning to the death of relatives. The Children’s Hospital Colorado system has cared for more than 2,000 children who were hospitalized due to COVID, some of whom faced lengthy and complicated recoveries.
“As an ER doctor and a father, I would hate to have another child suffer from a disease we know we can minimize or prevent with a safe vaccine,” he said. “The vaccine is also going to allow children to play a role in protecting elderly family members and others around them with weakened immune systems.”
“The more children receive the COVID vaccine, the higher the likelihood that life can return to normal,” he continued.
Children’s Hospital Colorado will also be hosting ongoing vaccine clinics after playing a key role in the pediatric vaccine trials.
Colorado seems unlikely to require the vaccine for school attendance, as California is doing. Colorado already makes it easy for parents to opt out of routine vaccinations, and Polis has been hesitant to mandate vaccines even for adults.
Asked if the state might mandate the vaccine for students, Polis emphasized that in the initial weeks, there will be more demand than supply.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.