SALT LAKE CITY — Now that adolescents are able to be vaccinated against COVID-19, they can play "a huge part" in controlling the spread of the deadly disease in Utah, the state with the nation's youngest population, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist said Monday.
But Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah and director of epidemiology at Intermountain Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City, also cautioned that the coronavirus pandemic is not yet under control.
"We like to look at things as either all good or all bad. The news has gone from gloom and doom to 'the pandemic's over.' Well, it's not over. We're moving in the right direction. There's a lot of progress," he said, adding there are also still risks associated with the virus that can be avoided by vaccinating as much of the population as possible.
Given that almost 30% of Utah's population is younger than 18, the doctor said that means "a significant portion of children" must be vaccinated in the state to get the pandemic under control, although he said there's not "some magic point" where its spread can be completely halted.
"Adolescents are going to play a huge part in that," Pavia told reporters during a virtual news conference, calling last week's decision by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to allow the use of the Pfizer vaccine in 12- to 15-year-olds "one of the best bits of news we've had since the first vaccine results last November."
The news comes as the Utah Department of Health reported 164 new COVID-19 cases in the state Monday and one additional death from the virus, a Utah County man older than 85 who was living in a long-term care facility at the time of his death.
The state health department reported 2,411,343 total vaccine doses have been administered in Utah, a daily increase of 3,492. Just under 35% of Utah's population — and 43.1% of those 12 and older — are considered fully vaccinated, meaning it's been two weeks since their final dose.
Pavia gave Utah "a gentlemanly B-minus" grade for vaccinations compared to other states.
"We doing a pretty good job, but we shouldn't fool ourselves to think we're among the best states out there," he said, adding that the way the state rolled out the vaccines is "very thoughtful and very good," including mass vaccinations sites that are now being scaled back in favor of mobile clinics and doctors offices.
"Now we're at the point where we have to reach out to a lot of people for whom getting vaccinated is more difficult," the doctor said, in part because of hesitancy about the shots, something that may be more pronounced among parents of adolescents.
About a third of parents are eager to get their adolescent children vaccinated, Pavia said, while studies suggest as many as 20% are dead set against the shots and the rest are somewhere in the middle. He said parents should talk with their children and allow them to help make the decision.
Teenagers have been seen in informal surveys as more enthusiastic than their parents, Pavia said.
"I wasn't surprised about that at all. I think parents may be risk-adverse. The kids fully understand that it will let them get on with life and it's something that they'll do for the community as well," he said. New advice from the CDC allows other vaccinations to be given at the same time as the COVID-19 shot, the doctor said.
Just over 18% of Utahns 12-18 have received at least one dose, and 10% are fully vaccinated. Pfizer, which requires two doses, is the only vaccine approved for use in the United States by 12- to 16-year-olds, although approval for another two-dose vaccine, Moderna, could come soon after recently announced positive trial results.
A trial for adolescents of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine was put on hold while federal authorities investigated reports of rare blood clots in adult women who had been given the vaccine, Pavia said. The vaccine has been cleared for use, but he said even if the trial resumes, it "may not be the best choice" for young women.
Vaccines may be approved for children as young as 6 by early fall, he said, followed by those as young as 2 at some point. For infants as young as 6 months old, federal approval is not likely to come until sometime next year, he said.
In Utah, more than 400 children have been hospitalized with COVID-19 and at least two have died from the virus, he said. Although children are widely seen as being at lower risk of severe disease, "lower doesn't mean no risk," Pavia said.
Some children may also have symptoms like fatigue that linger long term, he said, citing a study that suggests as many as half of all children who contract COVID-19 have symptoms that persist for up to two months although that may be an overestimate.
The Pfizer vaccine proved 100% effective in preventing the coronavirus in children 12 to 15 in a recent trial, with side effects like a sore arm, headache, fever, joint and muscle aches, and tiredness similar to those experienced by older teenagers and young adults, a sign the doctor says shows both groups have "vigorous" immune systems.
Still, Pavia advised students 12 and up to keep wearing masks indoors until they are fully vaccinated, although most outdoor activities are safe. Last week, Gov. Spencer Cox announced face masks would not be required in the final week of classes for Utah's K-12 students.
The governor also included prohibiting future mask requirements in schools on the agenda for the special session of the Legislature he called for Wednesday.