Over the last 15 months, 12-year-old Jonas Soriano has rounded the corner from childhood into adolescence, but mostly behind closed doors and under the cover of a face mask.
The St. Paul’s School for Boys sixth-grader has watched the clock tick away, mostly at home, where he spent just about all his time outside of school. On Thursday, just after noon — moments before he rolled up his sleeve for the COVID-19 vaccine — he recalled the feeling of having to wear masks inside the house as his Reisterstown family struggled to navigate what the public health crisis meant for them.
“I’m excited to get the shot,” Soriano said. “It’s not as ‘COVID-scary’ anymore.”
Soriano, now among the youngest Maryland residents to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, became eligible for the shot Wednesday after federal and state regulators determined that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine could be used safely and effectively in kids ages 12 to 15. In Maryland, that accounts for about 307,000 people, or about 5% of the state’s 6 million residents.
It’s a small but crucial part of the state’s population. Researchers and infectious disease experts have called for about 80% or more of U.S. residents to get inoculated to end the coronavirus pandemic, a threshold that might be difficult to reach due to high levels of vaccine hesitancy and resistance found in pockets of the country.
In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday set a goal of 70% of adults vaccinated with at least one dose of vaccine to end a statewide indoor mask mandate, a move that public health and medical professionals said may be at odds with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has given fully vaccinated individuals a green light to gather without masks inside.
The CDC then went a step further Thursday, saying that fully vaccinated individuals no longer had to wear masks in public spaces, at least in most cases.
Still, every shot matters, public health experts say. With as many people as possible immunized, the virus eventually could run out of viable hosts and have a harder time spreading and mutating.
Older adults are more likely to contract severe disease from the coronavirus, but the state’s children have not been immune to sickness and death. More than 72,000 people 19 and younger have contracted COVID-19, and nine of them have died, according to state figures.
The coronavirus also has taken a physical and emotional toll on the state’s youngest residents. Some contracted headaches and eye pain as they transitioned from in-person schooling to remote learning, while others found themselves falling behind in class.
Their parents also have grappled with the public health crisis and its impact.
“It was heartbreaking as a parent,” said Monique Fulton, who accompanied her daughter, Asa, to a vaccine clinic Thursday at Maryvale Preparatory School in Baltimore County.
Asa said she didn’t expect her high school years to unravel like this, behind layers of anxiety, solitude and national grief. That’s why she got her shot at the earliest opportunity.
“I knew I wanted to keep myself safe and keep my family safe,” said Asa, 15.
Schools will play a key role in getting children vaccinated, said Tiffany Tate, executive director of the Maryland Partnership for Prevention, which coordinates vaccine clinics. The Pfizer vaccine comes in big batches and requires storage in a deep freeze, expiring quickly once thawed.
“I’m not sure we’ll get the hesitant parents,” Tate said. “But we’ll get those who say, ‘Eh, I’ll sign the form and [let my kids] get it at school.”
Support for requiring children to be vaccinated in order to attend school in person rose slightly from 54% in February to 58% in April, according to researchers from Harvard University and Medical School and Northeastern, Northwestern and Rutgers universities.
Support rose among nearly all demographic groups, according to the study, released this month. However, Americans remain divided on the issue of vaccines along gender, socioeconomic, and political party lines.
For Lutherville’s Julie Waldron, mom to Lila, 15, and Millie, 14, having the vaccine clinic at Maryvale, where the girls go to school, made all the difference.
“I’m not sure I would’ve jumped on it quite as quickly if it weren’t at school — I maybe would’ve waited to see how other children reacted,” Waldron said. “This is a little nerve-wracking, and to have it in the comfort of their school, and with their friends, is nice.”
Nearly 4,000 kids in the 12 to 15 age group got their first of two Pfizer doses Thursday, said Charles Gischlar, a Maryland Department of Health spokesperson. Close to 15,000 already have booked appointments for future dates, he said.
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The appointments are spread across the state, from the Wicomico Civic Center on the Eastern Shore to the Hagerstown Premium Outlets in Western Maryland. Clinics in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Harford, Howard and Prince George’s counties are among those with the youngest eligible Marylanders on their rosters.
Maryvale in Baltimore County had about 100 kids signed up Thursday, many of them from within the prep school network.
Avery Cutair, 14, from the Jemicy School, said she didn’t expect to get vaccinated this early in the year. There have been COVID-19 cases among classmates this year, which has kept her and her family members on edge, she said. She thought maybe vaccines for kids would come this summer.
Now ahead of schedule, Cutair said she’s riding the high of what’s ahead: summer plans to travel, see her grandfather and get back into the prepandemic routines she’s come to miss.
But best of all?
“I got out of school early!” she said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.