Kieran Layland, 15, receives his first Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination as his mother, Ashlesha Patel, observes from behind at the Cook County Public Health Department, Thursday, May 13, 2021, in Des Plaines, Ill. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar)

The use of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine has opened up to children as young as 12 in Mississippi, offering a way to protect the state’s adolescents before they head back to school in the fall and paving the way for them to participate in normal summer activities.

This move opens up vaccination against COVID-19 to 164,619 preteens and teens in Mississippi, according to Mississippi State Department of Health Communications Director, Liz Sharlot.  

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency authorization for the Pfizer vaccine’s use in those adolescents on Monday, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine advisory committee recommended such use on Wednesday. 

It is unclear how many parents across the state will take advantage of the opportunity to get their children vaccinated, but a recent MSDH vaccine confidence survey found that 52.2% of Mississippians plan to vaccinate their children against COVID-19.

While the most severe outcomes most often occur in older patients that contract COVID-19, that does not mean there are no risks for younger people. More than 22,000 kids between the ages of 12 to 17 have been infected thus far in Mississippi. Among that group, 62 have been hospitalized, 20 have developed multi-system inflammatory syndrome and at least one has died. 

“I want us all to really sit back and realize that you’re likely either to get the COVID vaccine, or the COVID virus,” Dr. Thomas Dobbs, State Health Officer, said during a Thursday press conference. “And under every circumstance, under every conceivable scenario, you are a thousandfold if not a millionfold better off getting the vaccine than contracting COVID. So please take this opportunity if you’re eligible to go ahead and get yourself or your kids vaccinated.”

Thousands of vaccination appointments are currently available on the MSDH vaccine scheduler, and parents will be able to schedule appointments for their children in the newly approved age group starting Thursday at 6 p.m.

During Thursday’s press conference, MSDH also announced a new program for schools across the state to offer voluntary asymptomatic COVID-19 screenings. The program is being funded by the CDC, and all school districts in the state have been invited to opt-in to the program. MSDH will be supplying rapid test kits directly each week to the schools that enroll. Dr. Dobbs said that asymptomatic testing is a great method for identifying infections before they can be spread inside the school setting. 

“It’s another tool to keep kids in school safely … we do have some data that shows that it keeps kids in school longer if you do it right. Our objective is to keep kids educated and keep them in those valuable extracurricular activities where we’ve seen a lot of outbreaks,” Dobbs said.

State health officials also addressed the sharp turnabout from federal health officials shortly before the press conference on Thursday, when the CDC advised that Americans who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus may stop wearing masks and maintaining social distance in most indoor and outdoor settings, regardless of size.

The new advice does come with some exceptions. Vaccinated individuals must continue to wear face masks and physically distance in health care settings, when using modes of public transportation and when in other high-risk settings like prisons or homeless shelters.

“We have all longed for this moment,” Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the CDC director, said at a White House news conference Thursday. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.”

The advice from the CDC marks a major moment of the pandemic, and comes as many have grown weary with COVID-related restrictions and masking in public. The topic of masking in particular has caused bitter divides and conflicts across the country, and still represents a deep partisan divide in Mississippi. 

Despite the CDC recommendations, both Dobbs and State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers advised Mississippians, regardless of their vaccination status, to continue masking in public. Especially in populated indoor settings, where one cannot be sure how many unvaccinated individuals they will come into contact with. 

“I think that we just have to kind of think about these situations as they come up and let reason dictate whether or not we need to wear a mask,” Byers said. 

Part of the motivation behind the CDC’s new recommendations for vaccinated people is to act as an incentive for the many Americans who are still declining to take a vaccine. Mississippi continues to rank last in the nation in the share of its population that has been vaccinated, and the state’s vaccination rate has dropped 65% from its peak in late February.

MSDH reported on Thursday that 982,359 people in Mississippi — about 33% of the state’s population — have received at least their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Nearly 851,000 people have been fully inoculated since the state began distributing vaccines in December.


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Will Stribling covers healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.