A look at major COVID-19 developments over the past week

The number of new coronavirus infections has fallen to its lowest level in nearly a year.

Deaths from COVID-19 also have plummeted, a testament, public health experts say, to the ability of vaccines to reduce the spread of the virus and protect the most vulnerable.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance that says vaccinated people can now ditch their masks outdoors and indoors, with few exceptions.

Close to half of Georgia adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and more young people will now have access to the vaccine. The Food and Drug Administration authorized the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in adolescents ages 12 to 15 years, a critical step in raising the level of immunity.

Here’s a look at major developments during the past week.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

ExploreCORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA/COMPLETE COVERAGE

Vaccine eligibility expanded

The FDA granted authorization for children between the ages of 12 and 15 to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

The expansion of vaccine eligibility for adolescents marks a major development in the country’s vaccination efforts, raising hopes for schools returning to normal in the fall, at least for older students.

In Georgia, 585,882 youths, or 6% of the population, fall in this 12-to-15 age group, according to 2019 census estimates.

The CDC’s vaccine advisory panel agreed with the FDA’s move. Data from scientists show the benefits of the vaccine for children outweigh the risks.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

A study showed that, among the 1,131 adolescent children who had received the Pfizer vaccine, many experienced no reaction. For those who did, the reactions were similar to those experienced by older teenagers. The most common were temporary fatigue and headaches.

Experts say they are reassured by the safety data from that research and information gathered from vaccinating millions of 16- and 17-year-olds, who were given access to the vaccine in March.

On Wednesday alone, more than a thousand children ages 12 to 15 came to the DeKalb Pediatric Center for the vaccine. The center partnered with the local city school system. For many, the pinprick was the first ticket on a journey to freedom after more than a year of life in lockdown.

The state is working to enroll pediatricians in the vaccine program and did not say how many now have the Pfizer vaccine, the only one authorized for minors. Children ages 12 to 15, with permission from a guardian, do not have to get the vaccine at a pediatric office and can get the vaccine at any vaccination site in Georgia.

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Fully vaccinated can ditch masks more often

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC director, said anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities — large or small — without wearing a mask or physically distancing.

“If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic,” Walensky said.

The CDC’s guidance still calls for wearing masks in crowded indoor settings like buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters. It will help clear the way for reopening workplaces, schools and other venues.

Walensky said evidence from the U.S. and Israel shows the vaccines are very effective in real-world settings, and so far they continue to show protection against variants spreading in the U.S.

The more people continue to get vaccinated, the faster the number of infections will drop — and the harder it will be for the virus to mutate, she stressed. She urged everyone 12 and older to sign up for vaccinations.

While some vaccinated people will still get COVID-19, Walensky said that’s rare and those infections tend to be milder, shorter and harder to spread to others.

There are some caveats. Walensky encouraged people who have weak immune systems, such as from organ transplants or cancer treatment, to talk with their doctors before shedding their masks. That’s because of continued uncertainty about whether the vaccines can rev up a weakened immune system as well as they do healthy ones.

And the new guidance is likely to cause confusion since there is no surefire way for businesses or others to distinguish between those who are fully vaccinated and those who are not.

Walensky stressed people who are not fully vaccinated should continue to wear masks indoors.

Staff writers Ty Tagami, Ariel Hart and Tim Darnell contributed to this report, as did The Associated Press.