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Children’s COVID-19 vaccine trial results ‘great news,’ Utah doctor says

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A person arrives at a COVID-19 vaccination site run by the Utah County Health Department in Spanish Fork on March 25, 2021. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Pfizer had announced that its COVID-19 vaccine is safe and strongly protective in kids as young as 12.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Pfizer’s announcement Wednesday that its COVID-19 vaccine is highly effective in 12- to 15-year-olds was hailed as “nothing short of great news for children and for controlling the epidemic” by a University of Utah Health pediatric infectious diseases specialist.

“I broke into a big smile,” Dr. Andy Pavia, chief of the medical system’s division of pediatric infectious diseases, told reporters during a virtual news conference from Salt Lake City.

Pavia, who is also director of the epidemiology program at Primary Children’s Hospital, said the vaccine could be available as soon as June to children 12 and older. He said another drugmaker, Moderna, is finishing a similar trial and could also be available this summer.

Pfizer and BioNTech said the more than 2,600 adolescents who participated in clinical trials in Utah and other parts of the country had no symptomatic infections, produced strong antibody responses and experienced no serious side effects.

“It’s only a press release, and as you know, we always want to see the data,” Pavia said. But he said it could be key to not only protecting children from COVID-19 but also to slowing their spread of the virus. Utah has one of the youngest populations in the country, with nearly 30% of residents under 18 years old.

“We often say children don’t get as sick as often as adults and there aren’t as many hospitalizations or serious outcomes,” the doctor said. “But that’s damning with faint praise.”

In addition to some 300 children dying in the United States from COVID-19 and its complications, Pavia said “there have been hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations. There have probably been millions of days lost from school. And there are children who are suffering long-term effects, so-called long COVID.”

Earlier this month, the Utah Department of Health reported the state’s first child death from the virus, a Salt Lake County boy between 1 and 14 years old who was hospitalized at the time of his death. Primary Children’s Hospital has treated children with lingering symptoms from the virus.

While keeping children from getting the virus is the most important reason for vaccinating them, Pavia said teenagers are “important spreaders of infection” because of their broader social lives, putting vulnerable people in their lives at risk.

He said no vaccine is 100% effective, so getting teenagers inoculated will add an extra layer of protection for grandparents and others whose age or medical condition may make them more likely to experience severe or even deadly cases of the virus.

Children are also critical to Utah reaching what’s known as herd immunity, when enough people are vaccinated to stop the spread of the virus. Estimates suggest that takes at least 70% of the population being fully vaccinated, something that’s all but impossible in Utah without those 18 and under.

“As long as vaccine was restricted to adults, we were just not in a position to fully control this pandemic,” Pavia said. “Now, we have an important tool that will help us get where we need to get to.”

Gov. Spencer Cox opened up vaccinations to all Utahns 16 and olderon March 24, although he said it could take weeks for everyone who wants a shot to get an appointment. Vaccines are being administered by state and local health departments, pharmacies, and partners hired by the state including University of Utah Health and Intermountain Healthcare.

Pavia said he expects vaccines to be available through family doctors by the time the Federal Food and Drug Administration authorizes their use in those under 16. Parents being able to talk to a familiar face about inoculating their children should help ease any hesitancy, he said.

“We have to communicate to parents that there are real benefits for their children, there’s real benefits to their family and there’s real benefits to the community,” he said. “We need to have that come from trusted sources. For many families, the most trusted source is their doctor, their (medical) provider.”

Other trusted sources of information about their children’s health can include church leaders, he said.

While Pavia said Utah “is not, in any way, the worst state” when it comes to parents being reluctant to immunize their children, there are significant pockets where there’s a lot of resistance that comes from distrusting authorities as well as the sometimes deliberate spread of misinformation.

“I think with a new vaccine, that reluctance that parents have to try something new is a very legitimate concern,” Pavia said. “So we have to make sure that information is available, it’s available from trusted sources, and also, very importantly, we have to combat the misinformation.”

He said many doctors were eager to enroll their own children in the clinical trials for the COVID-19 vaccines.

“We believe in this,” Pavia said.

New COVID-19 case count tops 500

Wednesday, the state health department reported 514 new COVID-19 cases and four additional deaths from the virus that occurred before March 1. There have been 1,364,203 vaccine doses administered in the state, a daily increase of 32,341.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 418 per day, with 6,751 more Utahns being tested and a total of 16,617 tests given since Tuesday. The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity is 3.3% when all results are included, and 6.7% when multiple tests by an individual in the past 90 days are excluded.

Currently, 135 people are hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19, bringing the number of hospitalizations to 15,525. The four deaths reported Wednesday, putting Utah’s death toll from the virus at 2,122, are:

• A Salt Lake County man, between 65 and 84, not hospitalized.

• A Weber County man, between 45 and 64, not hospitalized.

• A Salt Lake County man, between 65 and 84, not hospitalized.

• A Salt Lake County man, between 45 and 64, hospitalized.