A four-point plan to vaccinate America's elementary-school-age children

A four-point plan to vaccinate America's elementary-school-age children
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Elementary school parents, like their kids, typically have short attention spans. It’s a self-defense mechanism. But ever since the federal government gave the green light for kids ages 12-17 to receive the COVID-19 vaccination, we have kept our attention on when the next age bracket, 5-11 year-olds, would get their shots.

That moment has arrived, finally. Now is the time for political leaders and school administrators to plan how to best capitalize on this development.  

Getting as many kids ages 5-11 vaccinated as quickly as possible by providing convenient, equitable and trustworthy vaccination sites will be crucial for limiting spread in schools and in the communities, especially as we head into winter weather, flu season and winter break travel.

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Kids have lost so much during the pandemic, and as parents, we have had two years of stress over how they learn and play. We owe it to them to help them get vaccinated as soon as possible so that their childhood can be reclaimed.

As school parents, school leaders and public health professionals, we offer a four-point plan that any jurisdiction can implement as long as political will can be applied. 

First, clinics should be established across any jurisdiction to facilitate equitable, convenient access to vaccinations for kids, using the federal resources the White House has made available. Pediatric offices and children's hospitals already are stretched thin with staffing challenges, surges in respiratory viruses, catch-up from previously delayed well visits and PCR testing. Clinic-based delivery provides options for uninsured, underinsured, undocumented and other vulnerable populations whose services would be covered by federal dollars.

Moreover, pediatric appointment capacity varies tremendously. Medical providers cannot be expected to accommodate the sudden burst of appointments that will be needed to vaccinate children as quickly as possible.

Next, develop a centralized supply of resources that community groups can use to plan their own clinics. Public and public charter schools offer an excellent partner here. Many families know and trust their school community and are motivated to make their schools safer by vaccinating their children; many school administrators have expressed interest in hosting vaccination events.

We can also use the existing sense of community within schools to encourage and educate families about the importance of vaccination. School-based vaccinations also increase equitable access to vaccines as many families are not able to take time off work to bring children to doctors’ offices. The convenience of a Saturday vaccination clinic or a pick-up-time vaccination clinic at your child’s elementary school — hosted by people you know and trust — would expand access in a short period of time before the winter respiratory virus season takes off. 

Next, encourage major pharmacy chains and local pharmacies to offer vaccinations for children ages 5-11 at equitable locations and convenient hours. Under the COVID-19 public health emergency, pharmacists can vaccinate young children and this is being encouraged by the White House as part of its plan to vaccinate kids.

Last, prepare to listen and respond with compassion, empathy and patience to families who express hesitance about vaccinating their children. Many families have serious and legitimate questions about vaccines. Education and outreach to families will be a critical step to getting science-based information to families. This will be a conversation-by-conversation effort that must happen within communities of trust where community leaders are part of the dialogue. Each jurisdiction should work to develop clear communications that help answer those questions for families and work with local school communities and other community leaders to help facilitate those conversations.

These recommendations are consistent with the Biden administration plan outlined on October 20, which highlighted a range of settings for vaccinations, including schools and community clinics. And, as noted, cost should not be an issue given the federal government’s commitments. 

From conversations in our varied communities, we know there was strong demand for vaccines for children ages 5-11 in anticipation of the forthcoming FDA and CDC approvals. However, there are also several challenges to reaching high vaccination rates for kids across the country. Outreach will be needed to communicate the advantages and safety of the vaccine, meet the challenge of vaccine hesitancy and prioritize equitable, convenient and parent-trusted distribution. Logistics will be needed to help get shots into arms. 

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This is a time for a “use all available settings” approach well beyond conventional health care settings. Every city, town and county needs to invest in a multi-pronged, community-centered effort to facilitate vaccinations for kids as quickly as possible. We owe it to them. 

Elizabeth A. Stuart, Ph.D., is Bloomberg professor of American Health and vice dean for Education at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Twitter: @lizstuartdc. Ashley Darcy-Mahoney, Ph.D., NP, is an associate professor and Neonatal nurse practitioner at the George Washington University School of Nursing. Twitter: @adarcymahoney. Natalie Exum, Ph.D., MS, is an Environmental Health scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Sarah E. Raskin, Ph.D., MPH, is an assistant professor at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Editor's Note: This piece was updated on Nov. 11 at 9:26 a.m.