Vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds ease tension between health, in-person learning

Nov. 7—MANKATO — Morgan Lenhoff is used to explaining the need for shots to her kids. She has 10-year-old twins with anxiety and a 6-year-old son who is wary of needles.

Preparation for the three children's newly available COVID-19 vaccines Sunday entailed a description of how the vaccination protects them and what would happen when they sat down with a nurse. One part of her explanation — the need for a 15-minute waiting period afterward to ensure against adverse reactions — was made easier by the day's setting: A children's museum, with peers ranging from 5 to 11 hammering away at wooden tables and enjoying each other's company.

Emerson, 6, sat on his mom's lap and got the shot along with his two brothers. "Being able to play afterwards is always a good incentive. Good distraction. They're not sitting there thinking about their arm being sore," Lenhoff said as Emerson sat on a swing outside near his brother Miles.

State and local officials organized a clinic Sunday at the Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota to give 100 children, ages 5 to 11, a free first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. After at least three weeks, children will return to the museum for a second dose.

The event follows a unanimous vote by federal regulators Tuesday to allow a weakened version of the Pfizer vaccine for children in the 5-11 age range.

Heather Mueller, Minnesota's education commissioner and a Mankato resident, was at the museum Sunday morning. She detailed how the vaccine helps to ease the tension between the state's occasionally conflicting priorities of keeping students healthy and keeping them in classrooms.

"We shouldn't have to be deciding between academics and health; we should be able to actually do both," she said. "And this is what's gonna help us do that."

The pervasive delta variant has meant more COVID transmission among children this school year than with previous strains of the virus, Mueller said. Nearly 130 early childhood and elementary school students in Mankato Area Public Schools have reported positive cases of COVID-19 as of Nov. 5, along with 71 middle schoolers and 61 high schoolers.

Because of the spread, the state Department of Health and Department of Education planned to have doses in children's arms on the first plausible day, Wednesday of this week.

"We want to normalize this as much as possible," Mueller said. "We vaccinate our children on all kinds of things, and this is just another one that we're gonna need to be able to do to continue to keep them safe and have our kids in school."

Lori Krumm, a public health nurse with the Department of Health, had been at a pop-up vaccine clinic in Duluth earlier in the week before coming to the children's museum Sunday.

She noted that Minnesota schools have outpaced most local businesses in their willingness and ability to impose mask requirements and other layers of protection. But children have still been at risk of serving as vectors for the virus, spreading it to their peers or supervisors.

Giving the vaccine to 5- to 11-year-olds is a key to curbing transmission among entire communities, she said.

A challenge arises, however, with parents who are wary of the shots for themselves and may be exceedingly unlikely to arrange for their children to be inoculated.

"Amen that we now have the 5-11, and it's all about how can we promote it in a really positive way without being pushy about it," Krumm said.


A Kaiser Family Foundation survey from late September found that just over a third of parents indicated they would vaccinate their 5- to 11-year-old kids "right away" once a vaccine was authorized for the age group. About a third of parents said they would wait and see, while another quarter said "definitely not." The remaining 10% said they would do so only if required.

The education commissioner said the state's hope is that 70-80% of children in the age range will be inoculated.

When Krumm encounters people who seem to have been dissuaded by false information about the COVID-19 vaccine, her strategy is to ask where they saw it and redirect them to scientific sources.

"To be argumentative and [confrontational] is absolutely not gonna be a win for anyone," she said. Rather, her goal is to dispel myths when possible and otherwise create an opportunity for an informed decision.

Having spent 15 years earning the trust of parents acting on behalf of their children, Mankato Clinic pediatrician Katie Smentek said Sunday that inquiries about vaccine safety have become a routine portion of her appointments. Parents tend to be more nervous for their children than for themselves.

Her spiel to patients is that the benefits of a COVID-19 vaccination far outweigh any associated risks, and data shows that shots effectively reduce the probability of severe sickness. She also notes that her 10-year-old was vaccinated Wednesday, "and I would never do anything to her that I thought wasn't a safe thing to do."

Vaccines permeating a community also create a mathematical likelihood that the coronavirus won't persist and mutate into new variants.

"The more people we can get vaccinated, the less people that are gonna become sick, the less people that do get sick who are going to need significant medical care, and the less opportunity there will be to create variants," Smentek said.

"If we protect our kids," she added, "we're going to protect everyone else in our community."

Mankato Area Public Schools will host a vaccine clinic for children ages 5 to 11 at Rosa Parks Elementary School from 4-8 p.m. Friday.