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How Can Missouri Stop Its COVID Surge? Vaccinate More Teenagers

Teen pop star Olivia Rodrigo speaks at the beginning of the daily briefing at the White House in Washington on Wednesday. Rodrigo is at the White House to film a video to promote vaccines.
Susan Walsh
Teen pop star Olivia Rodrigo speaks at the beginning of the daily briefing at the White House in Washington on Wednesday. Rodrigo is at the White House to film a video to promote vaccines.

The Pfizer vaccine is free and safe for 12-to-17 year olds, but teen vaccinations in Missouri are far behind other groups in the state.

The White House on Wednesday invited a special guest to encourage young people to get their COVID-19 vaccines: 18-year-old pop singer and actor Olivia Rodrigo.

Rodrigo, who currently claims the No. 1 album and No. 2 song in the country, made her appeal in line with health experts who warn that increasing teen vaccinations is necessary to combat the highly contagious delta variant.

This week, COVID-19 hospitalizations in southwest Missouri reached their highest level in the pandemic so far, with the delta variant driving the increase of new infections across the state.

Low vaccination rates in rural areas appear to be a major reason for the surge. But vaccinations for Missourians between the ages of 12-17 remain well below the state average, too.

“Every time we have a new predominant variant circulating in our country, it’s becoming more and more contagious,” says Angela Myers, division director for infectious diseases at Children’s Mercy. “What that means is one person can affect more people.”

The Pfizer vaccine was authorized for use in adolescents as young as 12 in May, and is free and widely available. Healthy adolescents and teens are at low risk for severe COVID illness, but they can transmit the virus to others, even to individuals who are vaccinated in so-called “breakthrough” cases.

Missouri’s teen vaccination rate appears particularly low. Less than 24% of Missourians aged 12-17 had started their vaccination as of July 6, according to a new vaccine equity report produced for the Department of Health and Senior Services.

There's an especially stark divide between Missouri's urban and rural areas. Nearly 30% of urban Missouri teens under 18 had gotten a coronavirus vaccine, compared to fewer than 10% in rural areas.

In Missouri, as in most states, parental consent is required for individuals under 18 to get COVID-19 vaccines. Myers says conversation with parents often focus on fears that safety data on vaccines is lacking.

“We have hundreds of millions of people worldwide that have gotten vaccine,” Myers says. “So we actually have quite a bit of data about how well it actually works, and we’re getting more and more data everyday about how long the immunity is lasting from the vaccine."

Other parents doubt that vaccines are needed for children who have contracted COVID-19, but Myers explains vaccines can make naturally-acquired immunity even stronger.

The CDC has identified a rare complication, myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart, in a small number of mostly older male teenagers who received vaccines, although it is usually temporary and resolves itself.

Myers tells patients that myocarditis, while a rare possibility from vaccination, is actually a much more common symptom in COVID-19 patients. Teens can reduce their risk of COVID-related myocarditis by getting vaccine shots.

“The odds of any one kid having a transient myocarditis, or that heart inflammation related to a dose of vaccine, is actually very, very low, compared to their risk of getting COVID infection and having myocarditis from COVID infection, which was much, much higher,” Myers said.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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