Christen Cowper is eager to get the COVID-19 vaccine for her 5-year-old son as soon as it’s approved, which could happen before Halloween.

Pfizer announced on Monday that it’s COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective for ages 5-11, and said it soon will be submitting data to federal regulators, setting the wheels in motion for the vaccine to be given the long-awaited green light for elementary-aged children.

“I will be the person in line sobbing with relief,” said Cowper, of Gorham.

Her son, Izayah, a kindergarten student at Village Elementary School, has weakened lungs from being born prematurely and has had to quarantine due to exposure to COVID-19 at school. “COVID is terrifying for us. When he gets a common cold, he can be sick for two weeks, so I am afraid of what COVID would do to him,” Cowper said.

Izayah Cowper, 5, heads outside after completing some homework. Derek Davis

Public health experts have said Food and Drug Administration approval could take about three to four weeks after Pfizer submits its data. Once given the OK, the FDA would issue an Emergency Use Authorization that would allow schoolchildren to immediately get the vaccine made by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech.

That means the vaccination campaign for elementary schoolchildren could begin before Halloween or shortly after. The dose for ages 5-11 will be 10 micrograms, one-third of the 30 micrograms given to those 12 and older.

“These trial results provide a strong foundation for seeking authorization of our vaccine for children 5 to 11 years old, and we plan to submit them to the FDA and other regulators with urgency,” Albert Bourla, chairman and chief executive officer of Pfizer, said in a statement.

Parents of young children have been waiting for months to hear that news. Vaccination for the adult population began last winter and was widely available to most age groups by spring.

Maine’s health care system already is preparing for the day when nurses can start putting needles into the arms of the roughly 100,000 children who will become eligible.

SCHOOL CLINICS LIKELY

“We are preparing to set up vaccination clinics in schools,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center in Portland and seven other Maine hospitals. “School clinics are the quickest and easiest way to vaccinate a large number of children.”

This spring, MaineHealth organized 70 clinics at middle and high schools in the state, vaccinating more than 5,000 students 12 and older, Mills said.

In addition to school clinics, the vaccines will be available in drugstores and pediatrician’s offices, although it’s unknown how quickly the rollout will occur.

“We are prepared to adapt the framework that has made Maine one of the most vaccinated states in the nation to ensure that children between 5 and 11 years old can be vaccinated as quickly, safely and easily as possible,” said Robert Long, Maine CDC spokesman. “This will include coordinating with health care providers, including pediatricians, and other community partners to make vaccine doses accessible throughout the state upon (authorization) for this age group.”

Dr. Deb Hagler, a Brunswick pediatrician and president of the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that planning for the vaccination of schoolchildren already is underway, and she expects at the start it will be done largely at mass vaccination clinics, in schools or at drugstores, before spreading to pediatrician’s offices. But she said if a 5- to 11-year-old child is coming to their office for a flu shot or routine vaccinations, they also will offer the COVID-19 shot once it’s approved.

“We are going to be ready to go,” Hagler said. “There are so many parents who are super excited about this, and it will really be helpful in limiting the spread in schools.”

REDUCING TRANSMISSION

Mills said that vaccinating this age group should increase the state’s overall vaccination rate by about 5 percentage points, and will limit transmission in schools, which have become a risk factor for community spread. About 65 percent of Maine’s 1.3 million residents have been fully vaccinated, according to state data.

“Kids spend all day long in the classroom with each other and transmit it to each other, and then bring it home to their family members,” Mills said. “Schools appear to be one of the major transmission points throughout the country of the delta variant.”

In Maine, the state has reported 1,390 COVID-19 cases in schools and 52 outbreaks, meaning three or more linked cases. The outbreaks have caused some schools to quarantine students at home or move to remote learning and also have led to the cancellation of at least 19 high school football games.

Last week, people younger than 20 accounted for nearly half of new cases reported by the Maine CDC. In August, people younger than 20 made up 17.5 percent of the state’s new cases. And a year ago, people under 20 accounted for less than 1 percent of all COVID-19 cases in Maine.

Izayah Cowper, 5, who is in quarantine at home because he was exposed to COVID at school, does homework on the couch next to Darla, the family dog. Derek Davis

For Cowper, the Gorham parent, the loss of days due to quarantine for Izayah has been especially difficult. As a child with special education needs – including attention deficit disorder and impulse control issues – Izayah needs the structure of school, Cowper said.

“He really benefits so much from school, from being around other kids,” Cowper said. “Sitting across the table from his parents one-on-one doing schoolwork doesn’t work for him. He regresses really quickly.”

Andy Schmidt and his children, Nico, 6 and Nora, 10, are happy that the FDA may approve the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds. Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photograph

Andy Schmidt, of Portland, is the father of 6-year-old Nico and 10-year-old Nora, and he said they’ve been waiting a long time for the day they will be eligible to get their shots.

“I’m very excited for them to be vaccinated and have closer to a normal life,” Schmidt said. “I’m not just worried about them getting COVID, but I’m worried about them infecting a friend with a suppressed immune system. We want to do our part to protect other kids.”

Dianna Leighton of Fort Fairfield said it’s been a long wait for her 7-year-old son Ollie to get immunized. He had to quarantine for 10 days at the end of the 2020-21 school year because of a COVID-19 exposure, and with the high transmission rates in Aroostook County, Leighton said they feel fortunate to have avoided outbreaks at Fort Fairfield Elementary so far this fall. Caribou High School nearby is dealing with a major outbreak.

“I am thrilled to get these shots,” Leighton said. “We can see the finish line at this point.”

Hagler, the Brunswick pediatrician, hopes that improved vaccination rates among children and adults will stem the pandemic later this fall and winter.

“We are in a race against this virus, and we are still playing catch-up,” Hagler said.

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