'We can't let up': How an Arizona leader is helping kids get COVID-19 vaccines

Stephanie Innes
Arizona Republic

Mary Rose Wilcox, a longtime leader in Phoenix, is employing her deep community ties to get the COVID-19 vaccine to infants, toddlers and preschoolers.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved emergency use authorization for the special lower dose versions of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines for infants, toddlers and preschoolers this month. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention followed with its approval. 

Uptake both in Arizona and across the U.S. is expected to be slow, but Wilcox has a simple strategy that she's hoping will help.

Families shouldn't have to pre-register for vaccine events, fill out lengthy forms, travel long distances or require a computer with internet access to get the vaccine for their children, Wilcox said as she stood inside the recreation center at Grant Park south of Phoenix promoting a series of upcoming COVID-19 events for younger kids.

Most importantly, Wilcox said, families need to trust the people who are giving them health information, and in Phoenix that means people who speak both English and Spanish. She's got a team of outreach workers, including members of neighborhood youth groups, handing out fliers about upcoming vaccine events to local churches and homes.

The COVID-19 vaccine has been cost-free throughout the pandemic, but Wilcox makes that clear to families, too.

"This is proactive, so your little children will not get sick," she told community members gathered at the Grant Park event. 

Wilcox's strategy to bring the vaccine to people where they live, in familiar places and endorsed by trusted community members became an increasingly popular public health model during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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A COVID-19 vaccine event will be Tuesday at Grant Park in Phoenix

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation national survey said just one in five parents of children under 5 plans to immediately get the COVID-19 vaccine for their kids. And uptake for kids in the 5-11 age group has remained relatively low. As of June 22,  about 25% of Arizona's 645,000 kids ages 5 to 11 had received two doses of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, state data shows.

About 390,000 children in Arizona are between the ages of 6 months to 4 years old, state health officials say. When 5-year-olds are included, that number goes up to about 480,000, officials said. The dosing recommendation for the youngest age group is two doses for Moderna and a three-dose series for Pfizer-BioNTech.

Every Tuesday throughout much of the pandemic, Wilcox has operated a COVID-19 vaccine and testing site at Grant Park, 701 S. Third Ave.

Her next event is set for 4 to 8 p.m. June 28 and will include COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 6 months and older. It is part of a partnership with several entities, including the Equality Health Foundation, Phoenix and the Arizona Department of Health Services. Other community vaccine events are planned at other locations, too.

"A lot of people have stress and anxiety and depression they've experienced throughout this pandemic and we want to be a safe comfortable environment and a place to answer questions," said Tómas Leon, president of the Equality Health Foundation.

"Our focus moving forward is to get the youngest kids vaccinated and continue to get boosters for the 5 to 11-year-olds and to get the adults to get their second (booster) dose. We can't let up. ... We have to maintain our focus on getting as many people in the community vaccinated."

Although kids are far less likely than adults to get sick from COVID-19, some do get sick and die. State data shows 69 young people under the age of 20 have died of COVID-19 during the pandemic, and 4,891 have been hospitalized.

Leon said "community influencers" like Wilcox are key to improving vaccine rates and overall public health education. People listen to their neighbors, co-workers and pastors, he said.

Wilcox has a long history of public service in Maricopa County, including serving as the first Latina elected to the Phoenix City Council, a position she held from 1983 to 1993. She is now chair of the Maricopa County Special Health Care District Board of Directors.

The Special Health Care District is an elected five-member body that oversees Valleywise Health, a network of taxpayer-funded hospitals and medical facilities that serves a large number of uninsured and underinsured individuals.

Wilcox is a longtime resident of the neighborhood near Grant Park and owns a restaurant in the community, too.

She said she often fields questions from community members about the vaccine and is able to connect them with health providers in the neighborhood. She also invites religious leaders to vaccine events.

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Options for youngest Arizonans include federal health centers

Arizona parents have several options for getting the COVID-19 vaccine for young children:

Where parents and kids can get COVID-19 vaccines together in metro Phoenix

The local One Community Initiative is holding COVID-19 vaccine events in Phoenix throughout the summer. For information go to OneCommunityAZ.com or call 888-587-3647. The events will include COVID-19 vaccines for young children as well as all other age groups, including booster doses.

There's an event set for 2:15 to 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 29, at the Girls Innovation Academy, 4730 W. Campbell Ave., Phoenix.

From 4 to 7:30 p.m.  Thursday, June 30, there's an event scheduled at Morris K. Udall Elementary School, 3715 W. Roosevelt St., Phoenix.

The Maricopa County Department of Public Health has a list of COVID-19 vaccine events at https://www.maricopa.gov/5659/COVID-19-Vaccine-Locations#calendar

Among upcoming events listed by the county is one from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, June 27, at Best RX Pharmacy, 455 N. Mesa Drive, Suite #15 in Mesa.

County health clinics

The Maricopa County Department of Public Health is offering vaccines for children as young as 6 months at its public health clinics.

The county's multilingual CARES Team is available for questions at 602-506-6767 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. 

A Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine dose is drawn from a vial during a clinic at Promise Arizona's office in Phoenix on Jan. 26, 2022.

Pima County also is offering vaccines for children as young as 6 months at public health clinics. Appointments are recommended, but not required, at its clinics, whose locations, hours and phone numbers can be found at pima.gov/covid19vaccine.

Check the state's Vaccine Finder

The Arizona Department of Health Services' COVID-19 vaccine finder tool (https://www.azdhs.gov/covid19/vaccines/index.php#find-vaccines) includes a filter for finding the COVID-19 vaccine for kids under the age of five.

As of Thursday the tool was a bit clunky. In order to find an address, the user had click the filter icon on the tool, filter by age group and then look at the map to see locations. The user had to then close out the filter before the addresses of the locations would appear on the left side of the page.

State health officials say they expect the list to grow as more providers provide the state with their information and that they may also streamline the filter tool.

Arizona also has a bilingual Spanish and English COVID-19 Vaccine hotline at 844-542-8201 (select Option 8 to speak with a navigator) that can connect callers with community vaccination clinics funded by our Health Equity Office that offer vaccinations to those as young as 6 months.

Federally qualified health centers.

For a list of federally qualified health centers in Arizona go to https://aachc.org/.

Walgreens and CVS, though there are age restrictions for both

Children must be at least 18 months old to be allowed to get the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at CVS, MinuteClinic locations, company spokeswoman Monica Prinzing wrote in an email.

Appointments are being made available at MinuteClinic.com on a rolling basis as locations receive supply, she said.

Walgreens will begin taking appointments for children ages 3 and older to get either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines starting Saturday at Walgreens.com/ScheduleVaccine, through the Walgreens app, or by calling 800-Walgreens, company officials said in a news release.

Earlier appointments will be made available at select locations based on vaccine delivery in the coming days, officials said.

Pediatricians' offices

Some pediatric offices are offering the COVID-19 vaccine to children who aren't patients, among them Pleasant Pediatrics in the Valley and Agave Family Medicine in Tucson.

Reach the reporter at Stephanie.Innes@gannett.com or at 602-444-8369. Follow her on Twitter @stephanieinnes

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