Spenser Gillane, 13, walked out of Ochsner Lafayette General’s COVID-19 clinic at the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center Thursday morning, arm throbbing slightly from his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, and looked at his father, Danny Gillane.
“He said, ‘35 days,’” the elder Gillane recalled Friday, noting his son had already begun a countdown to the day after his second dose would be fully effective, excited to go to the movie theater with friends and have a normal summer.
The teenager has spent the past year slogging through online learning instead of attending in-person classes, shuttling to work at the library with his father, and seeing friends in limited settings with masks and social distancing. Gillane said he was washed with relief seeing the needle sink into Spenser’s arm, knowing the loneliness for his son was coming to an end.
“Everything that means something to his life was taken away from him, except for us. For me, it was a relief knowing he was getting it back,” Gillane said.
Spenser Gillane was among the first 12- to 15-year-olds to receive a coronavirus vaccine in Louisiana after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use on Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended it Wednesday and Gov. John Bel Edwards gave the go-ahead.
Ochsner planned to inoculate 55 newly eligible children across its health care system Thursday, with 548 scheduled over the next seven days. Children’s Hospital in New Orleans has set aside 60 vaccines daily for the age group. At Ochsner in Baton Rouge, the health chain plans to hold vaccine clinics on specific days but hasn’t set specific doses aside for that age group.
At Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center in Lafayette, spokesperson Elisabeth Arnold said the hospital system plans to schedule extended hours and Saturday clinics to work around the school day for parents and students.
Aside from adjusting clinic hours, local medical providers are getting creative to extend vaccinations to younger age groups. On Friday and Saturday, Ochsner Lafayette General is vaccinating interested attendees and graduates at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s commencement ceremonies, hospital spokesperson Patricia Thompson said.
Dr. Truc Dinh, a pediatrician at Ochsner’s Bluebonnet clinic in Baton Rouge, said she hopes parents who might be leery about Pfizer’s vaccine for younger teens and 12-year-olds understand the shots are important because they can still get sick and spread the virus to others.
“It’s been studied in over 2,000 adolescents, and it’s shown to be 100% effective in preventing COVID-19 and preventing the spread,” Dinh said, adding that the immune response in 12- to 15-year-olds is actually stronger than in adults.
Dr. Michael Bolton, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Our Lady of Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, said the hospital has still seen occasional cases of children who develop the rare COVID-19-related complication known as Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome.
“You hear a lot about [COVID-19] not being as severe for kids ... but too many kids have died from it,” he said.
The rare and not well-understood affliction has proven fatal in Louisiana and other states, though Bolton's patients have ranged in severity.
He said it’s among the reasons he’s encouraged parents to vaccinate their kids if they’re eligible, along with the shots letting them resume a normal social life.
Children 12 and older need parental consent, but they can get the Pfizer vaccine, the only one currently authorized for kids, anywhere it’s available. The Louisiana Department of Health website listed at least 13 sites where the Pfizer shots were available Thursday and 20 on Friday. A federal website showed availability at Walgreens, Walmart, large hospital systems and many clinics around the state.
Two doses went to the children of Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the New Orleans health director, at Children’s Hospital around 11 a.m. Avegno said lots of parents she knows are eager to get their children vaccinated, especially as summer activities begin.
“Just like adults, we’re going to see folks who have been pent up,” said Avegno, adding that it’s the perfect time for kids who are going to summer camp to get the shot because it’s not fully effective until two weeks after the second dose.
But after the initial demand, she predicted, the vaccination rate will wane, just as it has among adults.
“Summer is going to be tricky,” Avegno said. “As we get back to school, hopefully there will be a lot of events and opportunities at pediatricians’ offices to get it.”
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There are just under 250,000 12- to 15-year-olds in Louisiana, and like adults, not all of them will get a vaccine. According to polls cited by the CDC on Wednesday, 40% to 60% of parents plan to get their children vaccinated. While parents typically immunize their children at higher rates than they do themselves for other diseases, they reported similar or slightly lower intent for the coronavirus vaccine.
Initial reluctance might come from kids or adults.
Danny Gillane said he, his wife and their adult children are all vaccinated and they had no qualms vaccinating their 13-year-old. They watched the vaccine’s progress with the FDA and had frank discussions with their son about the science. As soon as it was cleared, he said they felt confident it was safe knowing the extraordinary effort and resources that went into the vaccine.
“You have a chance right now to do something to make everything better, so take it. It’s free,” Gillane said.
For children who lined up to get their first vaccination doses in New Orleans on Thursday, there were many reasons to be eager for a shot.
Cora Evans, a 14-year-old freshman at Benjamin Franklin High School, wants to get back to plans that coronavirus canceled: baking club and volunteering with animals. Mostly she's looking forward to feeling more carefree.
“I want to be able to have the most normal summer I can have,” said Cora, who got the vaccine mid-morning at Children's Hospital. “The last year has been such a mess. I just want to go places and do stuff without worrying about getting people sick.”
Others are ready to get out of the house.
“I want to go to Italy and Canada and Alaska,” said Amelia Wiley, a 15-year-old freshman at Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans. She got the first shot at Children’s Hospital.
Lillian Gorman, a freshman at Isidore Newman School, said she just wants to get back to nuanced humor.
“I’m a very sarcastic person,” said Lillian, 15. “It’s very hard to be sarcastic when no one can see my face and know I’m completely joking.”
Staff writer Youssef Rddad contributed to this report.