Why kids will be the last group in Utah to get vaccinated against COVID-19

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune file photo ) Children walk like mummies to help with social distancing as they take a nature walk in Salt Lake City on July 2, 2020. Kids will likely be the last group in Utah to get a vaccine for COVID-19.

As the state prepares to receive and distribute a vaccine for COVID-19, there’s one group of Utahns who will have a much longer wait to get immunized: children.

On Thursday, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said it’s going to take awhile — possibly another year — before vaccines are available for those younger than 18. That’s largely because the first trials for the new vaccines have not yet been completed with kids.

“It’s going to be some time before there’s broad availability for school-age children here,” Dunn acknowledged during an online news conference with the governor.

National experts say it could be as late as next fall, after the new school year has already begun again, before the trials for young age groups are done and vaccines and dosages for kids are established as safe. That means they’ll likely be the last in the state and country to get vaccinated.

The current vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, which are both expected to be distributed to states beginning this month, are certified only for those older than 18. They’ll be prioritized first for front-line health care workers. In Utah’s plan, they’ll go next to vulnerable adults.

By July, most parents and teachers should be able to get one, as well as college students. But it could be a few more months after that before kids in K-12 can.

That’s by design because the older individuals are, the more seriously ill they can get from the coronavirus; children rarely develop severe complications.

Pfizer is, though, getting underway now with clinical trials of its vaccine on those ages 12 to 17, which have different immune responses than adults. Moderna will likely begin the same later this month, said Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious disease at University of Utah Health. Neither has done a study on recipients ages 0 to 11 yet.

Pavia added Thursday that Moderna should finish its trial by the end of June, so the Food and Drug Administration may approve the vaccine for teens by fall and it will be distributed in late 2021.

“It’s always a fine balancing act between thinking about safety for children and the need to vaccinate children,” Pavia said. Doctors need “to have some safety data before we [begin] to move into younger ages.”

Still, he added, he’s disappointed with the timeline. “We think that there was enough safety data emerging and early efficacy data a month or six weeks ago that the adolescents could have been added earlier,” he said.

School-age children, those 5 to 17, make up 22% of the population in Utah — a growing number in a state that’s historically young — according to findings from the Utah Population Committee released Thursday. And most of them returned to school in person beginning in August.

Only one district in the state, Salt Lake City, has remained entirely virtual this fall. But even there, elementary students are expected to start returning for face-to-face instruction at the end of January, before any vaccine is available to them.

The district decided to bring the youngest kids back after a study found little transmission among them — whether they go to school or stay home. And, statewide, only four elementary schools have had outbreaks.

Getting a vaccine quickly to them is less of a concern for their safety from the virus. But it will help them be able to return to school, like normal, and slow infection rates overall, Pavia said.

The problem is that younger kids can still spread the disease even if they don’t get as sick. That’s what Pavia worries about and Gov. Gary Herbert noted is a problem Thursday.

“That’s something we’re going to be wrestling with as we go forward,” Herbert said. “Those are the areas that I’m most concerned about.”

A major issue for the state is kids getting the virus, Herbert said, and carrying it asymptomatically to older adults. That’s especially the case for high schoolers. The 15 to 24 age range has the most infections in Utah. And 57 high schools have had outbreaks.

Dunn said students returning to school this fall was a large driver behind the big spike here. She fears what will happen when many return again in January after their winter breaks.

For now, she added, the state will be pushing to test more K-12 students until there’s a vaccine for them.