With lots of lollipops and drive-thru clinics, the Blue Ridge Health District is readying to vaccinate children ages 5 to 11 in the area.
Vaccinations for this age group could start as soon as Nov. 9 following the expected approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The health district is expecting to receive about 6,300 doses of the Pfizer-Biotech vaccine in the first three weeks, which is not as much as officials hoped they would get.
“The roll out of this vaccination campaign is going to be slower than we would like,” said Ryan McKay, the health district’s COVID-19 incident commander. “We would love to provide thousands of doses every single day to offer some level of protection to children throughout our communities.”
The health district officials shared their plans for vaccinating this age group during a town hall Wednesday evening.
McKay and others highlighted that children have a low risk of exposure to the virus while at school where several measures are in effect to reduce the risk of transmission. That includes mask policies and improved ventilation. The health district has had one outbreak of COVID-19 in a K-12 setting this school year, which was at Western Albemarle High School. The outbreak totaled five cases and is now pending closure.
“Of over 1,600 children who have been identified as close contacts of a school exposure, only 3.3% of those have translated to a positive case,” McKay said at the town hall.
The district is planning for about 15,000 children ages 5 to 11 to get vaccinated, which would equal 80% of the age group. Similar to the initial days of the vaccine roll-out, the district’s allotment of doses will also go to doctor’s offices and the community vaccine clinic.
The 5-to-11 wave will likely be the last big phase of the COVID vaccination campaign for the health district, which kicked off last December. The vaccine is currently available to anyone over 12 years old and boosters for selected groups started in September.
So far, 62% of the eligible population in the health district is fully vaccinated, according to the district’s online dashboard. Overall, more than 330,000 doses have been administered in the health district, which includes the city of Charlottesville as well as the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson.
Children in the 5 to 11 age range will get a smaller dose of the vaccine — about a third of what adults receive.
“Unfortunately, we can’t take an adult dose and dilute it down to the pediatric size,” said BRHD medical director Dr. Denise Bonds. “We must use the pediatric doses on the 5 to 11-year-olds.”
More doses are expected to arrive in the health district later next month and in December, allowing any child who wants to get vaccinated to do so.
“People shouldn’t panic about getting vaccines,” Bonds said, asking for patience. “There will be plenty of pediatric vaccines. It’s just in this initial rollout.”
In the meantime, the health district is planning to focus on children with underlying medical conditions as well as those living with older family members, in multi-family households or with adults in public-facing jobs.
Medical conditions that increase risk for COVID-19 include lung disease, obesity or a neurologic disorder. National data from the CDC shows that Black and Hispanic kids have been hospitalized at higher rates than white children, according to Wednesday’s presentation.
“Those are the kids that we really want to get vaccinated right away because we want to keep them out of the hospital,” Bonds said, encouraging families to consult with their pediatrician about specific concerns.
During this phase of the vaccination campaign, the district is applying lessons learned from past waves and to make it easier for parents and guardians to get their children vaccinated. That means partnering with area schools, pediatricians and other organizations to host clinics to take doses out to communities.
“We learned that we have to be out in the communities first before asking people to come to a fixed location,” McKay said in an interview Thursday.
Community health workers visit neighborhoods before a vaccine clinic to answer questions and register people. That effort has been ongoing since early in the summer.
“That’s building trust that wasn’t there before and will help with 5 to 11-year-olds,” McKay said.
The University of Virginia Medical Center is receiving 6,600 doses, and spokesman Eric Swensen said that the details of how those doses will be distributed are still in the works.
“UVA Health anticipates providing pediatric vaccinations in multiple settings, including clinics, mass vaccination sites, and pop-up community events, all of which will be as child-friendly as possible,” Swensen wrote in an email. “UVA Health is also planning to offer collaborative support to the Blue Ridge Health District as needed, especially in vaccinating children in underserved and vulnerable communities.”
Similar to other age groups, the 5- to 11-year-olds will need a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, likely three weeks after the first shot.
To gauge demand and help with planning, the health district is surveying families anonymously to determine where to set up sites and how many people to plan for. That survey will close Nov. 4 and is available online through BRHD.
“In having all that prepared and having an understanding of how many children will be vaccinating that day, it really helps the flow and fluidity of those sites, which hopefully makes your experience even better while you’re there and your kids as well,” said Jen Fleisher, the district’s COVID response project manager. “I got lots of lollipops, so many lollipops.”
Vaccinations for this age group will also be available at the Seminole Square Community Vaccination Clinic, which is run by the Virginia Department of Health. BRHD officials said that the clinic will likely have the most appointments that are open to anyone whereas the other sites will be more targeted.
Families can make vaccination appointments through VASE starting Nov. 8. BRHD officials said Wednesday that it’s important for families to select the right dose when making their appointments.
For more information about appointments, go to vdh.virginia.gov/blue-ridge/covid-19-vaccination. The health district also is answering questions via its hotline at (434) 972-6261 or over email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Appointments require consent and a consenting adult must be present. The Seminole Square site will have different doses and vaccine types available; however, the drive-thru clinics will only be open to 5- to 11-year-olds.
The drive-thru clinics for vaccinations are a new tactic for the health district, building off previous flu vaccination clinics conducted in a similar way.
Fleisher said that the drive-thru format offers the most mobility to different neighborhoods and schools. Those clinics are best for children who don’t have underlying medical conditions or allergies, she said. Similar to the other vaccination sites, the children will have to stick around for 15 minutes after getting their shot for observation.
“If your child does have any complications with receiving vaccines or has a difficult time receiving vaccines, we really recommend that you go to your pediatrician,” Fleisher said.
They’re expecting to vaccinate anywhere from 50 to 300 children at the school-based sites, Fleisher said.
BRHD is planning to visit more than 30 schools in the first three weeks after the vaccine is approved. In the first week, they want to visit each locality at least once with a 5 to 11 clinic. Those clinics will run in the evenings from about 4 to 7 p.m. and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., but specific times and locations will be announced next month.