TARTU – With her father in tow, 13-year-old Gloria Raudjarv marched through a vaccination center inside a sports hall in Estonia’s second-largest city and up to a nurse for her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
So far, around half of Tartu's teenagers from 12 to 17 have already received their first vaccine shot, and local health officials are working to reach 70% by the time school resumes on Sept. 1.
“I really want to go to school already, we have been distance learning for so long,” she said, gripping her vaccination certificate.
Two months after the European Medicines Agency recommended that the coronavirus vaccine made by Pfizer-BioNTech be expanded to children 12 to 15, large disparities in the access to vaccination are being seen for youths across Europe. Last week, the EU drug regulator also cleared the vaccine made by Moderna for the same age group.
While countries like Estonia, Denmark and France are actively encouraging families to vaccinate their children before the new school year begins, others such as Sweden and the United Kingdom have yet to begin mass vaccinations for those under 18.
The World Health Organization, meanwhile, has said that children are not a priority for vaccination given the extremely limited global supplies and the fact that they face a significantly lower risk of severe disease and death. It has urged rich countries to stop vaccinating children and donate their doses to the developing world instead.
But as the highly transmissible delta variant creates new infections even as vaccination rates rise among adults in Europe, there are fears that young people will now accelerate the spread of the virus.
Maria Theodoridou, head of the Greece’s National Vaccination Committee, said a significant increase has been noted in the past few weeks in Greece of positive cases in children and adolescents.
“Children and adolescents, as we know, are a source of spread of the virus,” Theodoridou said, adding that those most at risk were the people in the children’s environment who were unvaccinated.
Children getting infected “will lead to new variants and to a reduction in the effectiveness of the vaccines,” she warned.
Vaccination remains voluntary for children in Europe but in Denmark, where more than a third of all children 12 to 15 are getting their first dose, health officials are hoping parents will yield to recommendations for all to get vaccinated before returning to class.
In France, where a third of all children from 12 to 17 have received at least one dose, the French education minister prompted criticism this week for announcing that starting in September, unvaccinated students in that age group would be sent home from school if anyone in their class gets COVID-19.
Critics said this would create a two-tier education system and unfairly discriminate against children whose parents are anti-vaccine. WHO has said children do not need to be immunized as long as the at-risk adults around them, including teachers and parents, are protected.
In the U.S., just a quarter of those 12 to 15 who got access to Pfizer’s vaccine starting in May have had their second dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among U.S. teens 16 and 17, about 37% are fully vaccinated.
In Estonia, where youth vaccination campaigns are run by municipalities, the rapid rollout in Tartu is credited to a strong outreach campaign via schools and social media, easy registration procedures and an educated population. Tartu is a university and research town.
For the teenagers themselves, it’s mostly about seeing their friends again. Estonia’s schools have been closed for in-school learning since February, with some exceptions for the youngest children and those sitting exams.
Gloria, who is entering 7th grade and aspires to be a singer, is looking forward to returning to the school stage.
“Contacts, interactions, discussions, but also the change of environment, getting out from home to go to school is really important,” said Ott Maidre, a biology teacher at the city's Hugo Treffner Gymnasium, who misses face-to-face teaching.
With more than 3,100 teenagers already vaccinated and another four weeks to go before school resumes, Tartu’s Vice Mayor Mihkel Lees is confident the city will reach its 70% vaccination goal for students 12 to 17 by Sept. 1
If not, they have Plan B.
“In case we can’t vaccinate enough kids and youth at the vaccination center during the summer,” he said, “school nurses will join in.”
Contributors include Jill Lawless and Maria Cheng from London, Elena Becatoros in Athens, Angela Charlton in Paris and David Keyton in Stockholm, Sweden.