Across Kansas, officials want youths 12 years and older to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Will they?

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal

When teenagers were given the green light to start getting the COVID-19 vaccine, Jack Koksal was one of the first in line.

This wasn't really a surprise — Koksal's mother, Beth, works for a public health coalition in Garden City.

But Koksal didn't need any urging from his parents in order to be convinced to get the vaccine.

"It's an easy call for me to get the vaccine because, why not? Why wouldn't I?" Koksal said. "Why wouldn't I get it if I can help prevent the spread, you know, especially when I have a lot of people in my life that are vulnerable."

Garden City teenager Jack Koksal fills out paperwork before getting his first COVID-19 vaccine earlier this year.

Now that he's been vaccinated, Koksal has become the de facto expert for his friends and classmates on what to expect if they get the shots.

"There's a couple kids who are way for it and there's a couple kids who are way against it," he said. "Most everyone else lies in the 'maybe I'll get it.' It is just whatever floats their boat."

Soon, more Kansas youths will be able to follow Koksal's path — if it floats their boat.

Wednesday a panel of advisers for the Centers for Disease Control gave their formal recommendation to administer the Pfizer vaccine to those ages 12 to 15 years.

More:Kansas to open Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to residents 12 and older

Kansas announced hours later they would follow suit for the 160,000 youths in that age group, with some counties already distributing doses.

But the announcement will prompt a new set of considerations for parents and teenagers. The ability to have a more normal school experience sits in the distance as a carrot for hesitant families.

"These are children, and really, we don't want them to ever get sick," said Gretchen Homan, a Wichita pediatrician and president-elect of the Kansas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "If we can help, we'd protect them from everything. And we definitely don't want them to get COVID."

Vaccine hesitancy a struggle with families, too

The news has been welcomed by public health officials in the state, as Kansas has seen its vaccination rate slow in recent weeks.

"Currently, we're almost at a standstill as far as our demand," said Julie Gibbs, administrator of the Riley County Health Department. "We've met our demand. Now we're just having a few people that are signing up and trickling in." 

The hope is the expanded eligibility will give the state a boost in its quest for herd immunity, which experts peg as requiring upward of 80% of the population be vaccinated.

But, much as the state has struggled with vaccine hesitancy for adults, it will likely also have to counter uncertainty from parents — many of whom haven't gotten the shots themselves.

Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation bears this out.

Only three out of every 10 parents said they would seek out a COVID-19 vaccine for their child as soon as it is available. A quarter of parents said they weren't going to seek out the shots for their child and an additional 25% said they were taking a wait-and-see approach.

More:Vaccination rate slows, is blamed for COVID-19 clusters at nursing homes

Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for youths?

Concerns from parents, Homan said, largely center on whether the vaccine is safe and what potential side effects could pop up.

She underscored, however, the safety and effectiveness of the shots.

A study conducted on the Pfizer vaccine among 2,260 adolescents 12 to 15 found the shots were 100% protective against symptomatic disease and that they actually prompted a more effective antibody response among teens than adults.

Homan noted guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics will allow the COVID-19 vaccine to be administered alongside routine childhood immunizations.

Pediatricians, meanwhile, are reaching out to families to bring them back to the fold after a year in which many may have skipped their annual checkups. A federal report shows a drop-off in preventative care for children, including a 22% drop off in routine vaccinations.

"If you haven't been in in a while it's OK," Homan said. "Call and set up an appointment and plan to get caught up on things because now we have time. It's the summer, and this is a great time to do it."

More:Fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask in most settings. Here's where you do in Shawnee County.

Members of the Kansas National Guard help distribute COVID-19 vaccines during a walk-in clinic for high school students at Highland Park High School last month.

In Riley County, Gibbs was optimistic about vaccine uptake.

A survey conducted in partnership with the local school district found 64% of parents with children ages 12 to 18 years were interested in having their child get the vaccine.

That feeds into a vaccination clinic the county is conducting next week targeted at young people. Officials hope the prospect of getting youths and teens vaccinated will be a way of enticing family members who may have been holding out.

"We're hoping that that kind of opens the gateway," Gibbs said.

Schools hope to get closer to 'normal'

Other parts of the state are taking similar tactics to begin targeting a younger population.

About 233 students at Seaman High School in Topeka have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine and a collaborative mobile clinic with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and Shawnee County Health Department last week vaccinated just under 50 students.

KDHE is expected to continue with similar events statewide.

More clinics are scheduled over the summer targeting middle schoolers, now that that is an option, Seaman Unified School District 345 superintendent Steve Noble said at a board meeting earlier this week.

More:No masks, unrestricted play time and school visitors? Seaman superintendent paints picture of 'normal' fall

"We have seen how quickly things can change, but with the vaccinations rising, we’re hopeful next school year can look more like a normal school year for our kids, our families and our staff," he said.

A turn toward "normal" could include allowing families to choose if students wear masks at school, letting students mix on the playground and inside classrooms and lifting visitor restrictions and gathering limits.

Mikalah Kuebler, a sophomore at Highland Park High school, receives her first COVID-19 vaccine in late April.

Vaccinated students would also be exempted from quarantine requirements — something that is particularly enticing, especially for student-athletes who have risked sitting out games if they were exposed to COVID-19.

But while this might be an effective motivation in parts of the state where schooling has been done remotely or with significant mitigation practices, many districts in Kansas have already dropped their restrictions.

In Garden City, for instance, Jack Koksal noted that masks haven't been required for some time.

"Even though we're kind of a big town, it still has a small town feel," he said. "And we feel pretty isolated out here. So I feel like things have started already going back to normal without even talks of ... everyone in school getting vaccinated."

More:While COVID-19 cases drop in Kansas, variants continue to spread

Providers must counter teen ambivalence

Logistics for mass clinics targeted at teens are slightly more complicated than a normal mass vaccination event.

Parental consent is needed if a student is under 18 and most providers will call a parent or guardian to verify they are in fact comfortable with their child getting immunized.

Reports of turnout have been mixed, according to Dennis Kriesel, executive director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments.

But that is in part because April and May are some of the busiest months in the school calendar, as students juggle the end of the academic year, plus sports, social events and college admissions decisions.

In Garden City, Beth Koksal, director of community health for Livewell Finney County, said the vaccination efforts have been targeted at certain neighborhoods, particularly those that are mixed-income, to cover as wide of a swath of the population as possible.

But she added that providers recently learned an important lesson: When it comes down to prom or getting a COVID-19 vaccination, teens are going to chose boutonnieres and fancy dresses over potential side effects.

And many young people are ambivalent about getting the shots in the first place, believing they aren't at risk for COVID-19.

"It's not that they've bought into misinformation or they just have generalized concerns about a new vaccine that came to market so quickly," Kriesel said. "It's just more of a 'Why bother? Because I'm not going to get sick anyway' or 'I might get COVID. But I won't be sick. Like, I'll feel fine. So who cares?'"

Still, 8% of all cases in the state have occurred in those ages 10 to 17 years. Nationally, at least 490 people 17 years and younger have died from COVID-19 in the United States, according to CDC data.

"Maybe they're not as astounding as the numbers for adults, but that's significant," Homan said. "And as a pediatrician and a mom, that's not OK with me. If we can prevent all of those, that's what we need to do."

Youths take the lead on getting vaccinated

In some cases, however, youths are the one driving the push to get vaccinated.

"I had a conversation with a pediatrician this morning," Beth Koksal said. "And he was telling me that a lot of his adolescent patients are telling their parents, who might be a little hesitant, 'Hey, this is something I want to do.'"

That was the case for Karla Hagemeister and her 12-year-old daughter Emily.

Hagemeister, who is the president of the Manhattan-Ogden Unified School District 383 school board, got vaccinated. So did her husband and 18-year-old son.

That left Emily as the lone member of the family who wasn't vaccinated. Hagemeister classified her daughter as an "independent thinker" who would make her voice heard in the process.

But there still was some deliberation in car rides to school over what the best course of action will be, with Emily also discussing the topic with her friends at school. She eventually decided to get vaccinated at Riley County's clinic next week.

"Kids, maybe we don't give them enough credit, because they talk about this kind of stuff," Hagemeister said.

Hagemeister outlined the process in a Facebook post and received questions from friends who had questions and hesitancy about letting their child get vaccinated.

The decision for her family was relatively straightforward, as it will allow them to spend more time with extended family and even take a vacation to Colorado without quarantining.

But Hagemeister said she has fielded questions from hesitant friends — a position she understands.

"There's almost a risk assessment that you make for yourself as an adult or as a parent," she said. "And then there's this hyper-risk assessment that you make when you're talking about your kids. And so I think parents, understandably, want to be sure what they're doing is going to be good for their for their kid."

The Capital-Journal's Rafael Garcia contributed to this report.