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COVID-19 vaccine clinics are busy again as people line up for pediatric shots and boosters in Pa. and N.J.

Nearly 30,000 children aged 5 to 11 got vaccinated in Pennsylvania and New Jersey within the first six days elementary-aged kids were eligible.

Pennsylvania Department of Health Acting Secretary Alison Beam speaks at the Bristol Township Senior Center on Tuesday.
Pennsylvania Department of Health Acting Secretary Alison Beam speaks at the Bristol Township Senior Center on Tuesday.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

With the approval last week of the coronavirus vaccine for elementary-school-aged children, the opening-up of booster shots to a wider section of the population, and a slight increase in people getting newly vaccinated, some Pennsylvania and New Jersey clinics are seeing some of their highest demand for shots in months.

“I want to keep my family safe,” said Anne Speece, 86, of Levittown, just before her left arm was injected with a booster dose at a clinic at Bristol Township Senior Center on Tuesday. She’s also planning for the holidays, when her relatives will be in town: “I’d like to get to see them.”

Both the booster shots and the pediatric vaccine come in time to give families extra peace of mind for the second holiday season of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 18,000 children 5 to 11 in Pennsylvania and 9,000 in New Jersey were vaccinated in the first five or six days of the rollout, state officials said. That represents about 2% of those eligible in Pennsylvania and 1% in New Jersey.

“I’m told in certain places — which is a good sign, I have to say — it’s hard to get an appointment,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday of pediatric shots.

Acting Pennsylvania Health Secretary Alison Beam said Tuesday she’d been pleasantly surprised by the level of interest in the pediatric vaccine so far, noting that public health officials had been concerned about uptake given national reports of lack of interest among parents.

“We were at a pediatric clinic on Thursday, and that afternoon, they had 600 kids who were registered there,” said Beam, in an interview with The Inquirer after speaking at the Bristol vaccination clinic, where about 50 older residents were gathered. “That’s what’s heartening.”

» READ MORE: Despite Pa.’s school mask requirement, not all kids are wearing them: ‘It’s kind of been a free-for-all’

She spoke a day after Gov. Tom Wolf announced the state’s school mask mandate will expire in January, returning the decision to require masks to local districts. Beam said the announcement was intended to give advance notice to the school leaders who have been “clamoring” for the authority to dictate their own policy. (The Commonwealth Court last month heard arguments in two lawsuits challenging Beam’s authority to require masks in schools.)

But she said the practice has protected children, and she hopes districts continue it — the decision doesn’t mean the administration is telling school leaders to lift the mask requirement.

“They know the CDC’s [recommendation] still stands with saying that if you want to retain in-person instruction, keep the masks on,” she said.

She also noted children have time to become fully vaccinated before January.

‘Steady stream’ still getting first, second shots

Pediatricians, hospitals, and pharmacists have kicked off clinics, appointments, and school vaccination events since last Tuesday, when the CDC approved Pfizer-BioNTech’s smaller-dose vaccine for kids 5 to 11.

At the same time, people are continuing to seek out booster shots since eligibility expanded last month to some Moderna recipients, as well as anyone who got Johnson & Johnson.

Pennsylvania has been averaging more than 25,000 boosters a day in early November, according to an Inquirer data analysis, compared with only about 15,000 first and second shots (at the height of the rollout in April, nearly 150,000 first and second doses were being given a day across the commonwealth.

About 70% of Philadelphia residents and about 65% of residents in the rest of Pennsylvania have received at least one vaccine dose. Those numbers are expected to rise now that a large swath of the population — the elementary-aged children — is newly eligible.

On Tuesday, Philadelphia reached a milestone: 90% of residents 18 and over have gotten at least one shot. While more than three-quarters of those 19 and over in the rest of Pennsylvania are partially or fully vaccinated, according to available state data, the rate for all adults in the state isn’t clear because the CDC’s current statistics for Pennsylvania represent an overcount, Beam said.

While local providers say boosters and pediatric shots now make up the majority of their weekly vaccinations, some places, such as Penn State Health and Philadelphia city-run clinics, are also seeing upticks in new vaccinations. Statewide, Beam said there’s interest from people who “felt more comfortable” waiting until now.

» READ MORE: Younger kids in the Philly region are getting their COVID-19 vaccines, bringing long-awaited relief for parents

“We continue to see a steady stream of individuals receiving the primary series, in part due to local, state, and federal vaccine mandates, which are driving individuals to be vaccinated,” said Rite Aid spokesperson Jeff Olson.

Lining up for shots again

Some providers say the atmosphere in clinics now is far different from mere weeks ago.

Rite Aids in the region have seen the volume of vaccinations increase over the last two weeks because of boosters, Olson said. Penn Medicine has also seen demand increase because of boosters, a spokesperson said. At Temple University Health System vaccination centers, 5-to-11-year-olds have been walking in with their parents, said chief medical officer Tony S. Reed.

Penn State Health administered more than 700 booster or third doses each of the last two weeks, about double what it had given in previous weeks, spokesperson Barbara Schindo said.

At the same time, 1,300 children are set to be vaccinated at its five central Pennsylvania vaccine clinics over the next two weeks, she added, with pediatric vaccine appointments booked up.

Earlier in the fall, Philadelphia Public Health Department clinics were excited to vaccinate 20 people in a day, spokesperson Jim Garrow said. Last week, one site vaccinated more than 100 children in a day.

» READ MORE: Helping overcome vaccine hesitancy was their goal. The surprise? Who was the problem.

City officials are also “encouraged by the rising number of booster doses administered” but believe some people are unaware that they’re eligible, he added.

Health and aging officials in Bristol encouraged older Pennsylvanians to get COVID-19 shots and flu shots before the holiday season.

That’s exactly why Julia Tortu, 78, and her brother Frank Brennan, 70, both of Bristol Township, showed up for boosters.

“To be around people, see my grandchildren, go out to eat, " Tortu said. “It’ll be better if everybody follows the rules and gets vaccinated.”

From a table in the back of the room, the health secretary looked out on people taking their seats, chatting with friends and neighbors, waiting for their number to be called by Acme providers administering boosters.

“These events are the greatest thing in the entire world,” Beam said. “You can talk about doses, you can talk about shots, you can talk about allocations until you’re blue in the face. Seeing people actually show up to get vaccinated is really, really cool. I don’t know another way to put it.”

Staff writer Maddie Hanna and graphics artists Chris A. Williams and John Duchneskie contributed to this article.