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As COVID cases rise among kids, teens targeted for vaccination

By Catharine Richert

Local public health departments, officials and schools are stepping in to help. Around the state, they’re collaborating to vaccinate a group that’s increasingly behind the worrisome spread of a more contagious variant of COVID-19 as they head back to school, sports and extracurricular activities.

The pop-up clinics are being raised against the backdrop of new warnings from state officials of widespread and growing transmission of COVID-19 among students, which the state hopes to curb with easier testing in schools for kids.

“Cases have been going up again in all age groups, especially children and adults under 60 years,” Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Thursday, noting that the average age of patients being admitted to the hospital for treatment for COVID-19 has dropped a full decade since last fall.

“The spread rate is of particular concern for young people,” she said. “Just this week, we’ve seen the number of school-related COVID-19 cases in students exceed the high level set in November during the big fall surge.”

Malcolm said that even if kids don’t get terribly sick from the virus, they can still develop long-term symptoms — and they can still pass the virus to more vulnerable people in their community.

“Each death from COVID-19 has been a profound loss,” Malcolm said. “And each death and each severe illness we see right now, when we are potentially so close to the end, has a particularly heartbreaking feel.”

A sustained race against the variant

While COVID-19 vaccinations are open to all Minnesotans, only the vaccine developed by Pfizer is approved for this narrow age group of 16- to 18-year-olds, making fierce the competition to find shots among parents of teenagers.

In Isanti County, due north of Minneapolis, David Morlock had been looking for a Pfizer shot for his 16-year-old daughter for weeks, and finally snagged a spot at a clinic hosted by a local public health department, aimed specifically at teenagers.

Morlock said the pandemic has been hard on his daughter, who attends a small Christian school in Cambridge, Minn. While she was in school for in-person learning most of the year, Morlock said his family was in constant fear of COVID-19 spread in school.

“There’s quite a bit of COVID restriction resistance in our community, and consequently the school didn’t enforce mask use,” Morlock said. “Because of this, we kept her and her sister home for a couple of weeks after the end of school breaks. … We knew people that attend the school would be gathering without masks or distancing with families for Thanksgiving and Christmas, so we wanted those infections to run their course prior to sending them back to in person class.”

According to data compiled by MPR News, Isanti County has among the fastest-growing case counts in the state. It’s also a place where vaccinations are well below the state average. In Isanti County, 32 percent of people 16 and older have gotten at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to the state’s average of 52 percent.

Carver County and nearby Scott County, in the southern Twin Cities metro area, are also planning vaccine clinics this week for teens, said Richard Scott, Carver County’s incident commander for pandemic response. Schools have invited students to sign up for their shots, and students at private and charter schools in the area are eligible, too.

The region has been the nexus of significant COVID-19 spread among young people in recent weeks, due in large part to the emergence of the B.1.1.7 variant, a more contagious form of the virus.

April has been the area’s second-highest month for case growth since the pandemic began — including in younger kids, Scott said.

“There has been a concern with the increased spread of COVID among our younger age groups … associated with sports and other gatherings associated with sports activities,” Scott said. “That’s why there was a concern about how we can take measures to protect the health and safety of our young people and their parents.”

That’s why the counties will be targeting vaccinations for students who are 16 and older. Together this week, they plan to provide 1,600 shots Thursday and Friday, Scott said.

Getting things to normal

Farther east, in Dakota County, cases have been on the rise, as well. It’s one reason Lakeville city council member Luke Hellier contacted Hy-Vee to arrange a vaccination clinic — targeted in part at city employees who had missed earlier opportunities to get shots, but also at area teens.

“We worked with the school district to try to get as many young people vaccinated,” Hellier said. “Certainly, if you look at the numbers in Dakota County, we’re some of the driving factors for COVID cases, it’s people in that 16-to-30 age.”

The clinics are scheduled to be held this weekend, and Hellier said there are about 1,000 doses to give out. The demand, he said, is strong.

“In less than 30 minutes we had filled up all the appointments, once the school district sent the message out district-wide,” he said.

Hellier said this weekend’s clinics are a pilot project that he hopes to replicate in other parts of the county. He himself is a parent of three small children. They’re too young for the vaccine, but two of them have had to miss weeks of school due to exposures in the classroom.

“To get things normal for schools, whether it’s wrapping up the spring but certainly before this fall, is to have the ability where kids can just stay in as much as possible,” Hellier said. “If we’re going to get back to normal, we need to have a whole lot of high school students vaccinated.”

But even as cases rise, schools are not requiring COVID-19 vaccines for teens. State officials say that the vaccines would only be considered as a requirement for school-age kids after the Food and Drug Administration officially approves the available COVID-19 vaccines, which are being used now under emergency use authorization.