As more states are expanding eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccines, some older teens, 16 and 17-year-olds, qualify if they have underlying health conditions or work in front-line settings. At least 37 states are allowing teens to be immunized against the coronavirus, Trish Riley, executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP), told TODAY.
But here's the catch: Only Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine has been approved for use in people as young as 16. With limited options, many parents in states where 16 and 17-year-olds are eligible are struggling to gain access. Here, experts offer advice to help your qualifying teen get a vaccination appointment.
Are teens eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine?
In some states, the answer is yes. According to NASHP, all people 16 and older can become vaccinated in Alaska, Mississippi and Utah. Connecticut plans to expand access to everyone 16 and up by April 5; Georgia will open vaccinations to those 16 and older this week. In Pennsylvania, teens with certain medical conditions are eligible, and North Carolina allows front-line workers, including 16 and 17-year-olds, to be vaccinated.
But at this stage, only the Pfizer vaccine is available to this age group. Makers of the two other vaccines being administered in the U.S., Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, are gathering data to present for approval from the Food and Drug Administration in kids 17 and younger.
Moderna has fully enrolled its clinical trials in kids 12-17 and hopes to have data by the summer, which could lead to authorization just weeks later. Johnson & Johnson plans to study its vaccine in kids, but has yet to announce any concrete plans. Pfizer also has ongoing trials in kids 12-15 and expects to release data this spring.
How can parents help eligible teens get the COVID-19 vaccine?
The first piece of the puzzle for parents is making sure your child is actually eligible based on your individual state, Riley said. For example, in some states, restaurant workers don't yet qualify, but in others, they do.
It's also important to ask your child's pediatrician before you get seek out the vaccine, in case they have an allergy or another condition that would lead the doctor to discourage it, Andrew Heinrich, a health and policy expert at the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut, said.
Next comes actually finding a site with the Pfizer vaccine.
Check your local vaccine website.
The best resource is checking your state or community's vaccine websites to see if they've made this information available online, Riley said.
Washington state, for example, has a vaccine locator on its website, and many of the locations post the types of vaccines that they have available, the state's secretary of health Dr. Umair Shah told TODAY, via email. Riley added that Mississippi has established a separate phone line and drive-thru clinics for 16 and 17-year-olds.
Whether websites are an effective strategy will vary from state to state, though.
"To be fair, states don't always know what their allocation is going to be, and so they have a further challenge to make sure they get the drugs where they're most needed," Riley explained.
Call your state's department of health.
If the information you're not looking for isn't available online, then you can try picking up the phone and asking a representative from your local health department. Riley especially recommended this if you're living in a county that hasn't been allocated any of the Pfizer vaccine. The health department could provide insight as to whether it's acceptable to cross county lines to get the Pfizer vaccine.
Ultimately, though, you should "abide by your local guidelines and regulations about how it's being done because there are some places that are asking for proof that you live in the relevant county or district," Heinrich advised.
Contact the vaccine site itself.
Heinrich also recommended visiting individual vaccine sites' websites because many of them are listing what vaccines are available. But it's "a minority of sites" that are doing this, he noted.
You can also schedule an appointment and pick up the phone the day of and call to see if they have the Pfizer vaccine available, he added. Shah also said that contacting vaccine sites directly is a good course of action.
Reach out to your local children's hospital or child's workplace.
For teens with underlying medical conditions, Riley said reaching out to your local children's hospital is also a great resource, as is your pediatrician. For kids in essential roles, you can ask the employer, in case they have a workplace clinic or are facilitating vaccinations for workers, Shah added.
Heinrich also mentioned that some states are "flexible" and will allow a person to be vaccinated in a county if they work there but don't live there. So check the resources for the county where your child works, as well.
Ask local pharmacies.
"Some states have allocated Pfizer to (pharmacies) to make it readily available, so definitely after (parents) look at who's eligible, they can look to their local pharmacies," Riley said.
A rep for CVS added via email that the company is "very transparent throughout the vaccine appointment system on the CVS Health website about the availability of the different brands of COVID-19 vaccine available in different locations."
While its website stresses that you can't choose the vaccine you want, the scheduling tool allows you to see which vaccine sites have which brands.
Download a community-based app.
"There are more and more community-based apps that are being created to help folks (scroll) through all these various options for where to get vaccinated and what's available where," Heinrich said.
One example of such an app is TurboVax in New York City, which he said "seems to be quite effective," though he stressed he couldn't recommend it himself.
Be persistent and patient.
Even if the vaccine rollout at this stage feels confusing and complicated, Heinrich stressed that as time goes on, "barriers will continue to remove themselves. ... I'm talking the next six to eight weeks. It might get easier soon."
Riley added that it's important for parents to understand the context of the country's goal of getting as many people vaccinated as possible as they go through this process. "There's a lot of complexity to all of this; it affects all consumers, not just kids," she said. "It's really important to keep that in mind and states are doing their damnedest to try to get shots in arms."
Last, Shah and Heinrich both stressed that one of the best things for teens at this stage is for parents to model safe COVID-19 behavior. That means getting vaccinated yourself if you're eligible and encouraging the people who spend time with your child to get vaccinated.
"Adolescents need the same information about vaccines that adults do," Shah said. "They want to be informed about their own health care and understand the decisions that affect them. Parents and guardians should make sure their teens have clear and accurate information about the COVID-19 vaccine."