'Light at the end of the tunnel' as kids as young as 5 get COVID shots at school

November 17, 2021
Pandora DeJong age 10 closes her eyes while getting COVID vaccine.
Pandora DeJong closes her eyes as she gets her first COVID shot at E.B. Ellington Elementary School in Ravenel, South Carolina, near Charleston.

Pandora DeJong was one of the first children under the age of 12 to get vaccinated against COVID-19 through a partnership between the Charleston County School District and MUSC Health. She got the Pfizer shot, the only one authorized for children age 5 to 11. The dose for that age group is about one-third of the adult dose, and the needle is smaller than the adult version.

“It was just a pokey needle. I was nervous at first. I didn’t want to look at it,” 10-year-old Pandora said after getting the shot, which she said wasn’t a big deal after all. The vaccination took place at her school, E.B. Ellington Elementary, in western Charleston County. 

School nurses and MUSC Health pharmacists will return to the school next month to give second shots so the kids will be fully vaccinated. Between now and then, the nurses and pharmacists will travel to a series of other elementary schools to do the same thing for students age 5 to 11 across the district. The vaccinations are voluntary and require the consent of a parent or guardian.

Pandora’s grandmother, Kathleen DeJong, said it’s important for children to get vaccinated as we head into the holidays. It’s a time of year when we may be around people we don’t normally see as we enjoy gatherings with family and friends. People also tend to spend more time indoors to stay warm, which can make it easier for the virus to spread. “It’s always better to play it safe.”

Closeup of a sticker saying I got my shot. 
A girl waits for 15 minutes in a hallway after getting her first COVID shot to make sure she doesn't have an allergic reaction.

Ellen Nitz, director of nursing services for the school district, was pleased to see so many families playing it safe and taking advantage of the vaccine clinic in the elementary school’s media center. “It’s a relief. It’s exciting. This is the light at the end of the tunnel for us. This is the way out of the pandemic for us. We’re excited to be able to offer it.”

There’s a good reason she’s so happy to see more kids getting vaccinated. This school year got off to a rough start because of the fast-spreading Delta variant. “As busy as we thought we were last year, the numbers in our community just soared in August and September,” Nitz said. 

That spike in the Charleston County School District was mirrored in other districts, and it led to some kids getting seriously sick. Seventy-four children with COVID were admitted to the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital during that time. Fourteen were on ventilators and four were on a last resort form of life support called ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation.

Fortunately, COVID hospitalizations have eased as case numbers have gone down again in the Charleston Tri-county area. However, scientists say don’t let down your guard just yet. We could see another winter wave, possibly less severe than previous surges but with hot spots in areas with low vaccination rates.

Back at E.B. Ellington Elementary, 9-year-old Khalil Garvin wanted to protect himself and his family. “There have been a lot of people who died from COVID – people I heard about from the news,” he said.

So his grandmother brought him to the school vaccine clinic. When it was his turn, Khalil offered his arm for the shot.

“Are you excited?” school nurse Kim Edwards asked him.

“No,” he answered, to the amusement of the people around him.

“Here’s what you need to do. You need to hang your arm really, really loose. And you’re going to feel a stick. And - it’s done,” Edwards said, as she finished giving him the shot.

College of Pharmacy student Sana Dossaji and clinical pharmacist prepare vaccines for children at E.B. Ellington Elementary School. 
Sana Dossaji and Michael Askarian, clinical pharmacists from MUSC, prepare vaccine doses for children at E.B. Ellington Elementary School. MUSC Health has been working with the Charleston County School District since the early days of the pandemic to make schools as safe as possible.

Khalil was relieved when it was all over. So were Hetal Singh’s two daughters, who also got vaccinated. “We will be traveling outside the country next month, so I wanted them to be safe,” she said. “It’s hard without vaccination.”

Doctors encourage other families to get children vaccinated, too. While it’s rare for children from 5 to 11 to get dangerously sick from COVID, they’re just as likely to catch the virus as adults are. And children with mild cases can spread the virus to other people who may be at higher risk of severe illness.

So the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anyone 5 and up get vaccinated against COVID-19. If you’d like to see the answers to some frequently asked questions about the vaccine for kids, check out this Q&A with Elizabeth Mack, M.D., a pediatric critical care doctor at MUSC Children’s Health.

Nitz, the director of nursing services, said parents should ask their pediatricians about any other concerns involving the vaccine. She hopes the other school clinics will get a good turnout, too. “If you can’t make one of these clinics, please take advantage of your local pharmacy, grocery store or big box store. You can find a vaccine - it’s readily available. Take advantage of that for you and your family.”

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About the Author

Helen Adams

Keywords: COVID-19, Pediatrics