Vaccination slots filling up as Texas children ages 5-11 receive first COVID-19 vaccines

Nurses talk to 10-year-old Miranda Morales after she received her first dose of the Pfizer pediatric COVID-19 vaccine at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston on Nov. 3, 2021. (Annie Mulligan For The Texas Tribune, Annie Mulligan For The Texas Tribune)

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For months, Pearland realtor Gerald Hatter had been anxiously waiting on news that her 11-year-old daughter Bella Hatter would be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

On Wednesday, one day after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for emergency use for children ages 5-11, Bella received her first dose. She is one of 2.9 million children in that younger age group who are now eligible for the vaccine in Texas.

“It’s liberating,” Hatter said. “My daughter was the last person in the family to get vaccinated because the rest of us were already protected. So it was still kind of an anxious situation whenever we went somewhere.”

Mom and daughter, together with dad, Ron Hatter, went to Memorial Hermann in Houston’s Texas Medical Center, one of over 900 providers in the state administering more than a million doses to young Texas children. An additional 349,200 doses will be delivered to Texas pharmacies through the federal pharmacy program, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

To find a vaccine for you or your child, the CDC has set up a national vaccine finder where you can search by ZIP code, here.

The CDC’s emergency authorization came as Texas’ deadly third coronavirus wave slows but just before annual holiday gatherings. Hospitalizations in Texas have decreased by 666 cases compared to a week ago. The number of new cases and death counts are also dropping.

More than 70,000 Texans have died from coronavirus, including 22 children between the ages of 5 and 11, according to Dr. John Hellerstedt, the Texas health commissioner. Another 118 children who have had COVID-19 have been diagnosed with resulting multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which can inflame body parts including the heart, lungs, kidneys and brain.

“The pediatric vaccine will further help reduce the spread of disease and prevent the rare but serious complications of COVID-19 in this age group,” Hellerstedt said in a news release.

Appointment slots filled up quickly this week for the first pediatric doses. The 1,100 slots available on Thursday and Friday at University Health in San Antonio were fully booked, according to Bill Phillips, the health system’s spokesperson.

In Galveston, the University of Texas Medical Branch opened its system for appointments on Wednesday afternoon. Within 24 hours, 575 appointments had been scheduled, Jenny Lanier, UTMB’s director of ambulatory operations said. UTMB has as many as 6,000 of the pediatric vaccines available this week, Lanier said, with more coming.

Vaccinating this younger age group poses some new challenges from previous vaccine rollouts.

Providers said they are taking care to make the process more kid-friendly. At University Health, that means lollipop bowls, stickers and two therapy dogs. UTMB provided iPads and fidget spinners for children to hold while they wait. Lanier, the UTMB spokesperson, said the hospital system has spent the last month conducting extra pediatric training because younger children might react less warmly to the vaccines.

“We did everything we could think of to really help calm these little ones,” Phillips said.

Vaccine providers are also working to get shots into neighborhoods where children and their parents do not have easy access to transportation.

Beginning on Monday, Austin Public Health’s Shots for Tots clinics will provide the vaccine for children who are uninsured or are Medicaid recipients. Two walk-in clinics in Austin, one at Delco Activity Center and the other at the old Sims Elementary, have expanded their hours. APH will also add clinics at schools, prioritizing areas with limited vaccine access.

Chris Crookham, who manages Austin Public Health’s immunization unit, said the health authority is also considering providing vaccines during school drop-offs and pickups so parents can be present.

As the holiday season approaches and people gather with family, Crookham emphasized that vaccinations don’t protect just individuals, but everyone around them.

Now that she, her husband and all three of her daughters are vaccinated, Hatter said they will be able to visit elderly family members. While they saw each other outside at a distance last November, she said “it wasn’t hugs and all that kind of stuff.”

“Now we’re going to be able to go on vacation to Ohio and be around some of the elderly family that we were concerned about bringing children around,” Hatter said. “We’re still going to take precautions to make sure that the elderly in the family are taken care of.”