Approval of pediatric doses of COVID-19 vaccine for grade school children set off a scramble Wednesday as parents jammed clinic and pharmacy phone lines and websites in search of appointments.

Angela Carpio signed up on a clinic waiting list last week and jumped at the first offering Wednesday morning to make an appointment on Thursday for her son, who had breathing problems and sleep apnea after COVID-19 earlier this year. He was the rare 6-year-old begging for a shot.

"I went and got my booster recently and he was really upset that he didn't get one, too," said the Robbinsdale mother. "I said they're coming soon, like in a week, and he said, 'Yea!' "

Health officials expected heavy demand following Tuesday's recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for children ages 5-11 to receive pediatric doses of the Pfizer vaccine. The Minnesota Department of Health debuted a website with information about vaccines for children amid a lingering pandemic wave.

COVID-19 hospitalizations rebounded above 1,000 in Minnesota, and the positivity rate of diagnostic testing returned above 8% as well.

The Health Department on Wednesday reported 43 more COVID-19 deaths and 2,956 more coronavirus infections, raising the state's pandemic totals to 8,761 deaths and 807,956 infections.

"We were never going to get to that herd immunity … level with just vaccinating adults," said Joe Kurland, an infection preventionist for Children's Minnesota. "If we want to get back to kind of a normal society, we have to get kids immunized and protected."

Children's averaged nine pediatric COVID-19 cases in inpatient beds per day last week. Kurland said children are at lower risk, but they can have severe COVID-19 and long-term complications. His 13-year-old was already vaccinated and he was arranging to get shots for his 10- and 8-year-old children as well.

State health officials expected a surge of demand — similar to when the Pfizer vaccine became available in the spring for children 12 to 15 years old. First doses were provided to a quarter of that age group in Minnesota within days of becoming eligible, but then interest tapered off until the start of the school year this fall. The first-dose vaccination rate in that age group is 59%.

About 261,000 pediatric Pfizer doses were expected to arrive in Minnesota in the next few days, enough to vaccinate half of the 500,000 children ages 5-11 in the state.

500 doses at MOA

Five hundred doses were offered Wednesday at the state's Mall of America vaccination site, where Gov. Tim Walz greeted families and said it was "good for the soul" to see relieved parents and smiling children. Another 1,500 doses will be provided Thursday.

"This is all about making sure our kids can be kids," Walz said.

Kate Eckroth of Minneapolis kept pressing refresh on her computer until a registration spot appeared and she could get her 7-year-old daughter, Anya, vaccinated before their trip to Disney World — a trip they canceled last year. The second-grader wasn't nervous before her shot.

"I got my antibodies tested before," which requires a blood draw, Anya said, "and it didn't really hurt."

Six-year-old Ruby Barringer of Lakeville was literally doing cartwheels exiting the mall vaccine site, because the shot meant a return to gymnastics and dance. She and her sister wore their favorite dresses and brought dolls, which received stickers after the shots.

"They were too prickly," she said of the shots, "like our prickly bushes."

Parents struggled online as clinics and pharmacies adapted their scheduling websites to make appointments available for Pfizer's lower-dose pediatric vaccine. CVS, Walgreens and local pharmacies and clinics offered varied timetables for appointments based on the size and timing of expected shipments.

Megan Peterson of Minneapolis was eager to get a first dose for her 10-year-old son, because she signed him up for indoor basketball and soccer that could increase his viral exposure. She also wanted him partly protected with a first dose before Thanksgiving in three weeks.

Appointments were hard to find, though, and her fallback plan was a vaccination event at a school next week.

"On all of them, it was very reminiscent of last spring when I was looking for my own appointment," she said. "You would see one of those appointments, click on it, and then it would be gone. … I do feel some urgency because this feels like it's been a really long time coming. It feels like, for our family, the last piece of the puzzle so we feel like we can re-emerge in the world a bit more."

Rare risks

Some parents worry about the rare risks of vaccine complications, but Dr. Andrea Singh, a HealthPartners pediatrician, said she has been advising them that the risks of severe COVID-19 illness are more significant.

Vaccination also offers practical benefits based on quarantine policies in many schools, she added. "When you are vaccinated, if you are asymptomatic and have a close contact in school, you don't have to quarantine anymore. So it's a really big step in the right direction in getting them back to their normal lives."

Previous infection offers temporary immunity, but vaccination is still important, said Dr. Robert Jacobson, a pediatrician and vaccine researcher with Mayo Clinic. "Natural immunity is not consistent and not long lasting."

Booster doses are recommended for Pfizer and Moderna vaccine recipients who are seniors or younger adults with underlying health problems or occupational exposure risks for infection. All Johnson & Johnson recipients can receive boosters as well.

Children's Minnesota's Kurland said he hopes that COVID-19 will follow the pattern of vaccinations against hepatitis B and HPV — in which two doses and a booster provide long-lasting protection — rather than influenza, which requires a shot each year.

Staff writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744