In preparation for an eventual federal approval to vaccinate kids between the ages of 5 and 11 against COVID-19, the Baker administration this week reached out to local boards of health, primary care practices and other health care providers to gauge their capacity to provide the shots and to sound out any worries.
Adults started to become eligible for COVID-19 vaccination last December and the protection afforded by a vaccine was extended to people as young as 12 years old in May. But vaccination remains unavailable for younger school children who are now partway into their third academic year to be influenced by the pandemic.
With federal authorization to use the Pfizer vaccine in kids as young as 5 years old on the horizon, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said the administration on Thursday sent a "very brief, check-the-box kind of a survey" to people and groups that figure to be central to the next phase of the state's vaccine rollout.
"We are actively preparing for the authorization of 5- to 11-year-olds and all of your local boards of health got a very brief survey last night. We're surveying everyone across the health care providers space on capacity or worries about vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds and there's a lot of informal conversations," Sudders told the municipal officials on the Local Government Advisory Commission on Friday morning.
She added, "The good news is we're building on the platform that we put in place for the 12-plus-year-olds in the springtime."
The secretary said she expects that parents of kids between 5 and 11 years old will "want to reach out to their trusted sources," specifically their child's pediatrician or primary care doctor. There are 1,452 primary care practices in Massachusetts, Sudders said, and 845 are enrolled with the state as COVID-19 vaccine providers.
"So that's a good place to build from," she said. "And we have a lot of communications going out in combination with the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Mass. Medical Society, and we're leaning in hard on Boston Children's Hospital to also do a fair amount of messaging."
Results from a trial assessing the safety and efficacy of the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children 5 to 11 years old showed "a favorable safety profile and robust neutralizing antibody response," the drugmakers announced last month. This week, Pfizer submitted that data to the Food and Drug Administration and in the coming weeks plans to formally request an emergency use authorization to begin vaccinations for younger kids.
On top of the rollout of vaccines for younger kids, Sudders is also managing the rollout of COVID-19 vaccine booster shots. So far, only people who got the two-dose Pfizer vaccine are eligible if they are 65 or older or if they are 18 or older but are at greater risk of a serious COVID-19 infection.
About 600,000 Massachusetts residents are eligible for a Pfizer booster and Sudders said that about 76,000 people here have already gotten their third dose at one of the roughly 545 locations it is offered in Massachusetts. Her secretariat said last week that it expects the state will have the capacity to administer more than 300,000 Pfizer booster doses per week by mid-October.
"And for those of us who got Moderna and J&J, don't worry, it's not far behind in the FDA approval," Sudders, who described herself as "a J&J girl," said.
Sudders told the LGAC on Friday morning that 77.6 percent of eligible people in Massachusetts are fully vaccinated and 88.4 percent of eligible people have received at least one dose of a vaccine. When it comes to residents older than 65, 99.7 percent of them are fully vaccinated, she said.
But still, about 620 people remain hospitalized in Massachusetts with COVID-19 and Sudders told the local officials that the hospitalization metric will take on new significance in the months and years to come as the coronavirus lingers indefinitely.
"At some point when we move from a pandemic to an endemic, we will talk more about hospitalizations and deaths rather than cases. Because this virus is going to be with us," she said. "Hopefully, at some point, it's just gonna be like a nasty flu, but this virus, given its variants and the like -- we're not gonna be able to eradicate COVID, but what we will be able to do is to manage it."
Right now, Sudders said, "we don't have a COVID hospitalization problem in Massachusetts."
"What we have is a very high acuity issue going on with our hospitals and a high level of hospital staff fatigue and burnout," she said.