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Maricopa County is planning ahead to get kids vaccinated for COVID-19

A Food and Drug Administration panel is  expected to meet next week to consider emergency use authorization for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for kids ages 5 to 11. Maricopa County Public Health is already making a plan to get Arizona children vaccinated.

Marcy Flanagan, executive director of Maricopa County Public Health, said many pediatrician’s offices will receive doses in advance so that they’re ready to start administering shots as soon as approval comes through.

"We've been working with them, offering to support them to hold vaccine clinics and events at their sites if they're interested," Flanagan  told the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors this week. 

Flanagan said her department is also coordinating with elementary schools to plan vaccination events for younger children. 

“We’re pairing [elementary schools] with vendors or high schools that have had prior successful events so we can really just take those vaccine events back out on the road again,” Flanagain said. 

Maricopa County Public Health reports about one-quarter of recent COVID-19 cases in the Valley have been among children. COVID-19 tends to be less severe in children than in adults, but Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, with the county health department, said the virus can still be very dangerous for kids with underlying health issues. The county reported 80 pediatric hospitalizations for the virus in September.

Even though new cases of COVID-19 have leveled off in the state, Arizona continues to report a high rate of COVID-19 infections in schools, Sunenshine said. School outbreaks have declined since August, but more than 200 schools in the county have ongoing outbreaks.

“This is definitely outside the norm for the United States," Sunenshine said. "We are seeing a lot more school outbreaks than other locations are seeing who have stricter mitigation policies in place.”

Sunenshine stressed that the vaccine is safe for children. But she noted polling data that suggests many parents remain hesitant about vaccinating younger children. 

"We really need to make a huge effort to get pediatricians on board," Sunenshine said, adding that the county has been working with Phoenix Children's Hospital on its pediatric vaccine plans. "We think that by partnering with them we can help parents feel more comfortable with getting their younger children vaccinated."

Getting Arizona children immunized, especially ahead of the holiday season, will be critical to preventing a fourth wave of infections in the state, Sunenshine said. 

"There's going to be all kinds of exposures cross-country and then when they get back into the school setting the more that are vaccinated the less likely there will be to be outbreaks," Sunenshine said.

Don Herrington, interim director of Arizona Department of Health Services, said retail pharmacies and more than 900 providers such as pediatricians and community health clinics will provide the vaccinations to children. He said pediatric vaccine providers will be identified on the state’s vaccination website.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

Katherine Davis-Young is a senior field correspondent reporting on a variety of issues, including public health and climate change.