Getting vaccinated was a win-win on Thursday for Katrin Wenz — protection against a pandemic that has forced lockdowns around the globe and a good reason to leave school early.
"All my friends are going to be vaccinated, too," said Wenz, 13, of Minneapolis. "That means we can hang out at other people's houses."
Clinics across the Twin Cities on Thursday started offering appointments — and in some cases actual doses of COVID-19 vaccine — to adolescents 12 to 15. The change came one day after federal officials backed expanded use of the Pfizer vaccine.
With Minnesota seeing a steady decline in people receiving first doses of vaccine, health officials hope the newly eligible teenagers will help boost the state's immunization rate. Wenz was one of about 400 teens being immunized at Children's Minnesota. Patsy Stinchfield, the senior director of infection prevention and control, said Children's started providing vaccine to some adolescents Wednesday night, right after the decision by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to allow its use on that age group.
"Any place that has previously been giving Pfizer vaccine, they are likely still giving Pfizer vaccine and parents can access it that way," Stinchfield said. Pointing to a state website (vaccineconnector.mn.gov) that lists vaccine sources, she added: "Some have walk-in abilities at the pharmacies. Others are offering appointments."
Minnesota health officials announced 1,011 new coronavirus infections and 19 more COVID-19 related deaths Thursday, bringing the total to 591,445 confirmed cases and 7,274 fatalities.
More than 2.68 million Minnesotans have received at least one dose, but there's been a significant slowdown in new recipients.
In early April, the state's seven-day rolling average for first doses peaked at about 40,000 per day, according to the Star Tribune's vaccination tracker, but has since fallen to a daily average of fewer than 11,000.
The Pfizer vaccine is one of three approved in the United States, and the CDC's recommendation came with encouragement for providers to start using it "right away," said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the federal agency's director, in a statement.
"This official CDC action opens vaccination to approximately 17 million adolescents in the United States and strengthens our nation's efforts to protect even more people," she said.
Adolescents also were getting immunized Thursday at Essentia Health in Duluth. In the Twin Cities, Allina Health System and HealthPartners started offering COVID-19 vaccination appointments for those 12 and older, with the first shots coming next week.
In Hopkins, Dr. Sara Friedman and other volunteers were staffing a pop-up vaccination event on Thursday for hundreds between 12 and 15. She started organizing the clinic before a federal advisory committee to the CDC made its recommendation about the Pfizer vaccine, so doctors could provide shots as soon as possible.
"We did recognize as we set up the event that there was a chance none of this would happen," Friedman said. "Finally, we have something that we can do to actually help — to make our world better, to keep our children safer."
The event was at the Blake School but open to other students and run in conjunction with St. Paul Corner Drug. The pharmacy's owner, John Hoeschen, said he's seeing a lot of demand among parents for their adolescents to get vaccinated.
"Our biggest issue," Hoeschen said, "is having enough bandwidth to be able to do what we need to do."
Still, some parents wonder whether getting their kids vaccinated is worth the effort given that many hospitalizations and deaths were among the elderly.
"We are seeing mixed interest," said Dr. Andrea Singh, department chair of pediatrics at Park Nicollet Health Services. "The families that have been thinking about getting this vaccine are super eager and the families that are little bit hesitant still have a lot of questions."
Although the risk to children from COVID-19 is low, Singh said, it can be further reduced if children get the vaccine, which has been shown to be safe and effective.
"We've again been fortunate that not that many children have died because of COVID but even one child dying of COVID is too many," she said. "In order for us to return to normalcy for a community and a society we need to get that group of kids vaccinated even if other adults in the family are protected."
Children's Minnesota was expecting to administer another 400 doses Friday and 1,500 more Saturday, with most going to those 12 to 15 years old. The hospital reached out to existing patients to schedule appointments.
Like so many other teens, Wenz has spent a lot of time homebound with family. "Which is fine," she said as she sat next to her mother, Erin, for the requisite 15 minutes to ensure she didn't suffer an adverse reaction from the vaccine. "But it's important to hang out with friends."
For the past year, gatherings have been mostly limited to walking through the neighborhood with masks on or hanging out outside at a neighborhood coffee shop or restaurant. But soon she and her vaccinated friends can resume sleepovers filled with laughter over board games and the quest to stay up all night. "It's about creating bonding memories," Wenz said, her long brown hair cascading from her backward baseball cap.
Max Barquero of St. Anthony knows it's those kind of moments that teens and youngsters crave and need.
"At this age, it's important that they develop friendships and social skills," he said as he sat between his two daughters — 12-year-old Lucia and 15-year-old Fiona Barquero-Raivo. "Staying at home for a whole year has been emotionally hard for teens. They should be hanging out with friends and doing crazy things. It's important to go back to a normal life."
And that means being less worried and anxious about getting severely ill with COVID-19, Lucia said, noting it soon will be easier to pull her mask down to eat lunch in her classroom.
"[The vaccine] will give me peace of mind," she said.
Despite their young ages, many who lined up for a vaccine had adult-like knowledge of its significance as they talked about doing their part to make the world safer.
Zoe Hopper-Gramenz, 13, of Minneapolis, will soon get to spend time with her grandmother without a mask. Last week, her older sister got to do just that after consulting with her mom, Kate.
"She texted me and said she was two weeks out from her vaccine and wanted to know if it was OK to go in Grammy's house without a mask," Kate Hopper recalled her daughter saying. "It brought tears to my eyes. They baked together."
Staff writer Glenn Howatt contributed to this report.