BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — The efforts to make sure the youngest people eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine are ramping up in Western New York and around the country.
Erie County is holding three vaccination clinics on Saturday to ensure 16, 17, and 18-year-olds get their shot.
But why is this age group getting such a heavy focus now and why is it critical that they get vaccinated?
7 Eyewitness News anchor Katie Morse sat down with the University at Buffalo School of Medicine's Chief of Infectious Diseases Dr. Thomas Russo to find out.
Katie: Let's talk about teenagers getting the COVID-19 vaccine because we know New York State is really starting to target 16 and 17-year-olds. Why is that age group such a priority right now?
Dr. Russo: This age group is a priority because many of them are unvaccinated as of this time. We know that there's an increasing number of cases in this age group because they're unvaccinated. And it's critically important to get them vaccinated to both protect themselves from this unpredictable virus and if they're vaccinated, that will result in them being significantly less likely to others that are unprotected such as their parents, grandparents, and other loved ones.
Katie: You mentioned the increasing rate that we're seeing among these 16, 17, and 18-year-olds. Why do you think that we're seeing that?
Dr. Russo: I think we're largely seeing it for two reasons. First, they're unvaccinated, so they're susceptible to infection. In addition, we know that less-than-excellent behavior -- not using masks, particularly indoors -- could lead to infections and this age group is tired of this pandemic. They're ready to move on with their lives and gather with their friends. And so that's obviously going to put them at increased risks when they gather in indoor settings without masks. And vaccination is the solution to this. It's the best means to protect yourself and allow you to do those activities if everyone is fully vaccinated -- both indoors and outdoors.
Katie: And if teenagers or their parents are hesitant to get the vaccine, what's your message to them?
Dr. Russo: I think it's clear that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines -- and the 16 and 17-year-olds are eligible just for the Pfizer vaccine -- are incredibly effective and extraordinarily safe. Hundreds of millions of doses of these vaccines have been given in this country and around the world with no major safety signals or concerns. The risks and potential adverse outcomes of getting COVID far, far, far outweigh any theoretical, yet-to-be-discovered concerns with vaccination.
Katie: Over the summer or over the next few months, do you think that we'll see that age group drop to 12 and older?
Dr. Russo: I do. Pfizer has already applied for emergency use authorization for 12 to 15-year-olds. The data that's been released looks great: 100% efficacy, no major safety signals. I'm hoping that the FDA will give that authorization sometime in the next few weeks.
Katie: We have so many important events coming up for people in that age group. Proms, graduations. What could vaccinating teenagers now mean in terms of those events that are coming up in the next couple of months?
Dr. Russo: Vaccination affords a number of advantages. One of those advantages is that you don't need to get tested prior to events such as proms or other gatherings. Likewise, you don't need to get tested if you want to travel on airlines as well.
Katie: How about for graduations and graduation parties? What do families need to be thinking about now? And how should they be moving forward with those plans, knowing some people are going to be vaccinated and some people are probably not?
Dr. Russo: I think the most important thing that parents should consider -- and the critical reason to get vaccinated -- is though it's convenient not to be tested before events such as proms or travel, and obviously it's nice not to have to wear masks when you're outdoors or when you're indoors with other fully-vaccinated individuals, really the key concept here is that it'll afford protection for you from getting infected with this unpredictable and potentially lethal virus. Right now, even though younger people are feeling as though they're bulletproof, and the likelihood of a bad outcome is very small, there's still a number of younger individuals that have had immediate bad outcomes and obviously, there's both concern for intermediate and long-term consequences for infection.
Katie: How about as we look ahead to the next school year? What do you think as far as making sure so many people get vaccinated for the next school year and what could that mean? If we don't have these vaccination rates, could we be seeing another school year where maybe teens aren't in school full-time -- where they're doing the hybrid learning? How do you think that will work as we head into the fall?
Dr. Russo: I think this is very simple. If we're able to get everyone vaccinated, we're going to be able to go back to normal. Cases are going to be low. People are going to be largely protected and classrooms will be in-person and full. And we'll be putting this pandemic behind us.