Are we ready to vaccinate new wave of children?

Children ages 5 to 11 might soon be eligible to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, but they won't have access to the numerous mass vaccination sites that served adults and older children earlier in the year.

That has pediatricians, suburban school districts, national pharmacy chains, park districts and public health agencies bracing for a new surge of people seeking the vaccine. Recent polling shows at least a third of U.S. parents plan to immediately seek vaccines for their children ages 5 to 11 when the shots are made available, possibly this month. On Thursday, Pfizer asked the U.S. government to allow use of its COVID-19 vaccine in that age group

The Illinois Department of Public Health does not track COVID-19 infections specifically for this age group, but data from the state health agency shows the percentage of people under 20 getting infected is much higher over the past nine months than it was during the first nine months of the pandemic, when no one was vaccinated.

Illinois is home to an estimated 1.1 million children ages 5 to 11, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. That's nearly 9% of the state's total population.

Most mass vaccination sites in the suburbs closed by July. But unlike during the initial surge of those seeking to be vaccinated against the respiratory disease that has killed more than 25,000 in Illinois alone, the state's surplus of vaccine doses is much higher today.

"We expect that most children will be able to receive vaccine at their pediatrician's office, Cook County Health clinics, local pharmacies, school clinics and other Cook County Department of Public Health vaccination events," said Dr. Jacqueline Korpics, medical director of COVID-19 response at Cook County's public health department. "We are working closely with schools to communicate options for their students."

Pediatricians would likely be the first stop for most parents, but because of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine's super-cold storage requirements, some children's doctors might not be able to carry it.

"Go to any place that has a dose as soon as it's available," said Dr. Emily Landon, head of the University of Chicago's infectious disease prevention and control program. "It's the same vaccine, same needles, same storage. Just bring your own lollipop."

Officials at school districts that have hosted vaccination clinics in the past said they might do something similar for younger students.

"For (students) that qualified, and who chose to be vaccinated, we offered a window of time at one of our schools to come by and get their vaccination shot," said Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 spokesman Adam Harris.

"We would likely offer another opportunity if the vaccination becomes available for students 11 and under as a service to our community so that there is easy and convenient access to the vaccine."

Other school officials said they are waiting to see if such clinics are necessary.

"We have partnered with community groups to offer a vaccine clinic in the past," said Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 spokeswoman Erica Loiacono. "As more information about the vaccine becomes available, we will review it."

Karla Jimenez, spokeswoman at Elgin Area District U-46, one of the largest school districts in the state, said, "The decision to offer a vaccine event would depend on interest from parent."

CVS officials said the pharmacy chain is "fully prepared" to handle an influx of customers seeking the vaccine following the "expected regulatory approval" for the 5-to-11 age group this month.

And given the connection many suburban children have with local park districts, officials in some of those agencies have begun planning to offer clinics, as well.

"The Itasca Park District is preparing to provide a mass vaccination clinic to those age 5 to 11, once it has been approved," said Maryfran Leno, the agency's executive director.

"We are working closely with our Wood Dale Jewel-Osco, to be on top of this and ready to go once that approval comes through."

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