Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
Persistence paid off for the Swenson family when Olivia, 2, finally got her COVID booster shot at a metro clinic on Wednesday.
Keeping little ones like her up-to-date on vaccinations for COVID and other infectious diseases is responsible parenting, especially with the Minneapolis family recently welcoming a newborn daughter. But finding the shot was surprisingly challenging — a reality that parents should be ready to navigate and the state's health care systems should remedy.
Federal health officials cleared an updated COVID booster earlier this month for ages 6 months and older. But when Olivia's dad, Matt Swenson, sought to book an appointment for her he ran into headwinds.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance calls for "homologous" vaccinations for kids Olivia's age. Translation: If a child this age already received the Pfizer shots, as she did, ideally the booster should be Pfizer as well.
But the Swensons' regular provider only had the Moderna pediatric booster. The same held true at many other Twin Cities clinics. Adding to the difficulty: Pharmacies often don't vaccinate very young children.
After working the phones, Swenson found the Pfizer pediatric vaccine at an M Health Fairview clinic. A photo of a sweetly smiling Olivia in a lavender hoodie adorned with an "I got my shot" sticker marked the occasion.
Swenson is grateful his little girl and growing family are protected against the virus but understandably added, "I feel like it shouldn't be this hard."
His advice for other parents grappling with the same problem: Call the Minnesota Department of Health COVID hotline (1-833-431-2053), reach out beyond your normal medical provider to see if other clinics have the booster, be kind, ask questions and, "when you find a break like this, share it with other parents."
Hopefully, other parents will follow the Swensons' conscientious lead. While the pandemic's emergency phase is over, the virus continues to circulate. Nationally, weekly COVID hospitalizations declined 3.1% for the most recent week measured, but that comes after weeks of concerning increases.
On July 1, new weekly hospitalizations hit 6,480, according to the CDC. As of Sept. 23, that same metric stood at 19,079. Minnesota also hit a grim milestone last week, reaching 15,000 deaths since the pandemic began.
The vaccine remains a vital defense against serious illness, which is why it's important to stay up to date on boosters. In an interview, Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) vaccine expert Lynn Bahta reminded parents that it isn't just older people at high risk of severe COVID. Young children are vulnerable, too.
According to data presented at a recent immunization advisory committee meeting, COVID hospitalization rates are highest in those 75 years and over, followed by infants under 6 months of age, then followed by adults 65 to 74.
That data also shows that children ages 6-23 months are at significantly higher risk of severe COVID than older children, with hospitalizations increasing over the summer.
With the end of the pandemic public health emergency this spring, vaccine distribution has transitioned to the private sector. Supply snags are being ironed out. The Swenson family's difficulties may also lie in the Pfizer pediatric vaccine's heightened cold storage requirements. Because of this, health care systems may have ordered Moderna.
In an interview, Bahta said that MDH is aware of this and working with medical providers to ensure that kids get boosted promptly. This includes issuing departmental guidance that draws on longstanding vaccine practice and flexibility from the CDC and other medical experts: that it's preferable to "give what product you have available" vs. withholding an immunization.
"That's basically the message we are trying to put out now," Bahta said.
It's important to protect as many children as possible against severe COVID, with delays potentially leaving many kids unprotected. Bahta also noted that adults have been mixing and matching COVID vaccines, with no adverse events reported.
M Health Fairview, which has the Pfizer pediatric vaccine, is aware that parents whose kids aren't currently patients may want to book an appointment for the booster. Officials there provided a link with guidance for families: tinyurl.com/FairviewPediatricVaccine. A helpful vaccine locator is also available at vaccines.gov.
Matt and Sara Swenson have both had their COVID boosters. Getting Olivia boosted as well provides peace of mind for them. Said Matt Swenson: "We just wanted her to have the same level of protection that we had and the whole world has been yearning for through the entire pandemic."