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Q&A: COVID shots for adolescents, new mask guidelines for vaccinated Oregonians

Merced Naanos, pharmacy technician at OHSU, draws up COVID-19 vaccinations at a drive-thru vaccination clinic at Portland International Airport, April 9, 2021. Starting Thursday, May 13, Oregon is now allowing people age 12 and older to receive the Pfizer vaccine.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff/ OPB
Merced Naanos, pharmacy technician at OHSU, draws up COVID-19 vaccinations at a drive-thru vaccination clinic at Portland International Airport, April 9, 2021. Starting Thursday, May 13, Oregon is now allowing people age 12 and older to receive the Pfizer vaccine.

With the warm sun, vaccination rates on the rise, reopening guidelines set, and new guidance on masks, it’s getting easier to believe that we might have something like a real summer in the Northwest. Starting Thursday, Oregonians age 12 and older can get vaccinated against COVID-19, and Gov. Kate Brown eased masking and social-distancing requirements for people in the state who are fully vaccinated.

Just like with any big changes, it’s normal to be a little hesitant — so here’s what we know so far.

Need an incentive to get vaccinated?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an updated mask recommendation Thursday, which Oregon has elected to follow: People who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear them indoors in most situations. Masks will still be required in hospitals, prisons, doctors’ offices and on forms of public transportation. In a late-afternoon video announcement Thursday, Brown said the Oregon Health Authority will be providing updated guidance in the coming days for businesses, employers and others to allow them to liftmask and physical distancing requirements after verifying vaccination status.

“Some businesses may prefer to simply continue operating under the current guidance for now, rather than worrying about verifying vaccination status, and that’s fine,” she said.

No. Like everything with this virus, we’ll be taking it one day at a time. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Wolensky said that if the pandemic throws another curveball, Americans should be prepared to bring out their masks again. And if you do get sick, you should still get tested for the coronavirus, and you should still wear a mask.

Pfizer enrolled 2,260 children between 12 and 15 in a placebo-control study, where roughly half the participants received the real shot, and roughly half received a dummy shot of saline. More than half of them were followed for at least two months after getting the vaccine.

Normally, a study of just 2,260 people wouldn’t be enough to get FDA approval, and two months isn’t a lot of time to follow people for adverse effects. But we already have a lot of evidence that the Pfizer vaccine is safe, from the millions of people who already have it in their arms.

“The physiological differences in 12- to 15-year-olds versus 17-year-olds, 25-year-olds, is just not that huge,” said Dr. Laura Byerly, the chief medical officer at Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center. “So there’s not a lot of reason that it would be different in kids and grown-ups.”

Byerly is one of two Oregon medical professionals appointed to the Western States Scientific Safety Review Group. As a member, she was tasked with reviewing information about the vaccine’s safety.

And though the sample size of the study of 12- to 15-year-olds was small, the results of the study were promising: no one who received the vaccine and completed the study got sick.

Researchers don’t just look at who gets sick, they also track the body’s immune response. Participants in the 12-15 age group had a stronger, faster immune response to the vaccine. That fits with data from past studies, which found older adults didn’t respond as well to the vaccine as younger adults. In past studies, a stronger immune response also came with worse side effects. But a smaller percentage of those aged 12-15 reported side effects than did young adults.

“Not only did they have higher levels of antibodies, they reported lower levels of side effects like headache, fatigue, body aches, and fever,” Byerly said.

So far, the vaccine appears to be safer and more effective in children than it is in adults.

Previously, out of an “abundance of caution,” people were advised against receiving the COVID-19 vaccine within 14 days of a different vaccine. Although cautioning that any adverse interactions between Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine and others still remain unknown, the CDC today said that interactions were unlikely enough to allow people to receive the vaccine “without regard to timing.”

This change was made, in part, because many people fell behind on routine vaccinations during the pandemic. On a practical level, this means that scheduling the vaccine just got easier.

Vaccine distribution still varies a lot from county to county. The All4Oregon mass vaccination site at the Oregon Convention Center is giving the Pfizer vaccine to youths right now. Many pharmacies have the vaccine available — often with no advance appointment required. Some hospitals are coordinating with schools to host youth vaccination drives.

Oregon plans to distribute more of the vaccine to private practices and community health care centers, to help make it easier to get. If you have an appointment with your health care provider in the next few weeks, it’s worth asking if it’s available.

In most cases, children getting the vaccine will need to be accompanied by an adult, but the specific rules may vary depending on the location. At the All4Oregon mass vaccination site, all minors must be accompanied. The same is true at Walgreens and CVS pharmacies.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Erin Ross