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Appalachia Health News tells the story of our health challenges and how we overcome them throughout the region. 

Adult Vaccinations Hit A Wall In W. Va., But Kids Are Just Getting Started

Skyy Kelly 15 SCHS.jpg
June Leffler/ WVPB
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Skyy Kelly, 15, gets her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in May at South Charleston High School.

Like many adults, teens aren't thrilled to get a needle in their arm. That includes 15-year-old Ryan Zitzelberger, who got his COVID-19 vaccine at South Charleston High School last month.

“Well, I want to get it, so I don't get the Covid as easy, but... needles,” Zitzelberger said with a squirm.

He sucked it up and got the vaccine, figuring that staying out the hospital with a bad case of the virus was worth it. Afterwards he said it wasn’t so bad, just a light pinch.

One mother dragged her son into the same school gym to get his shot. He had the same fear.

“I don’t like needles,” said Donovan Whiting who lives in Dunbar and attends South Charleston High School.

But his mother, Sheri Burton, didn’t think that was a good excuse. She’s seen the consequences of this virus.

“I lost my mother, his grandmother, to COVID in February,” Burton said. “So we're making sure the whole family gets vaccinated.”

All these teens opted for the vaccine, just six days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended use of the Pfizer vaccine among those 12 to 15 years olds.

Whether they opted in or out, school nurse Mandy Jordan says her students are naturally curious.

“We’ve had a lot of kids questioning when they can get it, because they don’t want to be quarantined anymore if they have exposure,” Jordan said.

She's heartened that so many students are making the decision to get the vaccine and trusting the process.

“That just shows that this generation is making some good decisions,” she said. “I'm proud of them for that.”

So far, about 13,600 youth in this age group in West Virginia have gotten at least one shot, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. That’s roughly a sixth of all 12 to 15 year olds in West Virginia.

But retired Maj. Gen. Jim Hoyer says what's promising is that this age group has not hit its wall yet.

“It’s a solid, straight, upward trajectory according to our data analytics team right now,” said Hoyer, who leads the Joint Interagency Task Force in charge of the state’s vaccine distribution efforts.

Keeping that momentum going is good for the state’s overall vaccine efforts, say state public health officials.

Coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh said there is a substantial reduction in new cases across all ages, especially in younger West Virginians, who had been spreading the virus most rapidly.

“We do believe that the uptake in vaccinations, the decision and the choice to vaccinate our younger West Virignians, has played a major role in that,” Marsh said.

The number of active cases in the state has dropped 43 percent in the last month. The median age of new cases is currently 34.

The Department of Education has helped with vaccinations, organizing clinics for teens in every county. Deputy Superintendent Michelle Blatt said her agency started with upperclassmen and worked its way down, as the FDA approved younger age groups.

“About the time they were wrapping up their 16 year old clinics on first and second doses, then Pfizer approved 12 to 15 year olds.”

Local health departments are taking the lead in communities. But the Department of Education alone has ordered and distributed 7,000 vaccines to 12 to 15 year olds.

Outreach will continue this summer. Though most schools end the academic year by June 9, there are still opportunities to engage students and get the vaccine out, like during summer programming and food distribution events.

“Anywhere that our community is gathering that we can find the opportunity, then we plan to share information and also hold clinics,” said Blatt.


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