Does Utah need kids vaccinated for the state to reach herd immunity?

Coronavirus Updates
Heather Ousley

Heather Ousley sits with her older children Elliannah, 15, right, and Samuel, 13, in front of their home in Merriam, Kan, Tuesday, May 4, 2021. Ousley was thrilled when she heard the FDA was expected to authorize Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for youngsters ages 12 to 15 and was hoping to get her kids vaccinated as soon as she can. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Utah (ABC4) – Utah’s number of COVID-19 cases has hit a plateau over the past couple of months, despite a vaccine being made available to all Utah adults.

Recently, the Utah Department of Health gave the green light for children ages 12 to 15 to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Physicians say getting this age group vaccinated will go a long way towards getting things back to normal.

This isn’t much of a surprise since children make up just shy of 30% of Utah’s population, according to a 2018 survey from the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey. Based on the percentage, Utahns are, on average, younger than the rest of the U.S. population.

With this in mind, is vaccinating children the answer to helping Utah reach herd immunity?

Charla Haley with the Utah Department of Health, UDOH, defines herd immunity as “a reduction in the risk of infection with a specific communicable disease (such as measles or influenza) that occurs when a significant proportion of the population has become immune to infection (as because of previous exposure or vaccination) so that susceptible individuals are much less likely to come in contact with infected individuals.”

Experts estimate that 70% to 90% of people would need to be vaccinated in order to reach herd immunity, according to UDOH.

“For vaccination to do its job, we need everyone to do their part. That means vaccinating as many people as possible who are eligible. Getting children vaccinated will give parents and caregivers peace of mind knowing their family is protected,” Haley tells ABC4.

“Some children can get severely ill and require hospitalization when they get COVID-19. We understand some parents want more information before getting their children vaccinated. We encourage parents who have questions to talk to their child’s healthcare provider or family doctor to learn more about the vaccine. And if your adolescent is behind on routinely recommended vaccines due to the pandemic or other reasons, now is a good time to work with your child’s doctor to make sure they get caught up,” she adds.

Dr. Andrew Pavia, Chief of Pediatric Infectious Disease at the University of Utah, says getting teenagers vaccinated will play an important role in ending the pandemic.

This is “because we know that teenagers play an important role in transmission, and they may be okay, but they don’t want to infect their parents, their grandparents, other vulnerable people in the community. So this may mark a real turning point in our ability to get towards a high level of protection and drive cases down,” Dr. Pavia states.

He says when the United States, Utah, and even other countries see a surge in COVID-19 infections among high school and college-aged patients, that often results in a surge in infection in the rest of the population a week or two later.

“It makes a lot of sense if you think about it. Teenagers interact with their friends all the time, that’s what they do. But they also interact with other people in the community and these close interactions allow them to be effective spreaders,” he explains.

And getting these effective spreaders vaccinated may be what gets Utah to herd immunity.

“Looking at the broader picture, this can be really important for getting the amount of vaccination in the community up to a level where we can really break the back of this pandemic. As you’ve noticed, we really haven’t made a lot of progress in the last two to three months in Utah,” Dr. Pavia says. “We’re stuck in this plateau of close to 400 cases a day and I think that expanding the pool of people vaccinated is really the kind of thing that we need to see to accelerate the race between vaccines and the virus so that we’re winning and the virus is losing.”

He says he hopes to see very high rates of vaccinations in high schools and middle schools going into the fall. This may allow students and teachers to go throughout the school year with less need for testing and masking.

“In my perfect world, every high school student would be vaccinated and then high school would look exactly like it did before the pandemic. It’s going to take a lot of work to get there, but that would be the best thing we could do for teachers and students,” Dr. Pavia explains.

Though Dr. Pavia says “we’re probably not going to get to some magic point of herd immunity where the virus cannot spread anymore,” he explains that the higher immunity we can reach, the better.

“The higher level of community immunity we can reach, the less spread there will be, the less restrictions we will need on our activity, the less chance that we’ll have new surges with cold weather or with variants coming through,” he explains.

“And yes, with about 28% of Utah’s population being under 18, we have to get a significant proportion of children vaccinated.”

He says the most important group to be vaccinated right now are children who have access to the vaccine – those ages 12 through 18.

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“… they’re the ones that can get sick with COVID. Most hospitalizations are in that age group. They’re the ones who suffer the most with long COVID. and because they are social, because they have jobs, because they are out and about, they also are the ones who spread it.”

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