KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD/AP) — U.S. regulators on Monday expanded the use of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to children as young as 12, offering a way to protect the nation’s adolescents before they head back to school in the fall and paving the way for them to return to more normal activities.

The vaccine, made at the Pfizer plant in Portage, could be administered to the age group as soon as Thursday.

Dr. Richard Van Enk, the director of infection prevention and epidemiology at Bronson Healthcare, says expanding the vaccine to the 12 to 15 age group will make a significant impact.

“If you go down to 12 (years old), now you’ve covered the entire high school population and into middle school, and that’s the population that plays sports and does all the social activities. And so, to protect those kids is going to be huge,” Van Enk said.

Based on testing of more than 2,000 U.S. volunteers ages 12 to 15, the Food and Drug Administration noted there were no cases of COVID-19 among fully vaccinated adolescents compared with 16 among kids given dummy shots. More intriguing, researchers found the kids developed higher levels of virus-fighting antibodies than earlier studies measured in young adults. 

Children are far less likely than adults to get seriously ill from COVID-19, yet they represent nearly 14% of the nation’s coronavirus cases. At least 296 have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. alone, and more than 15,000 have been hospitalized, according to a tally by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

That’s not counting the toll of family members becoming ill or dying — or the disruption to school, sports and other activities so crucial to children’s overall well-being.

Pfizer’s testing in adolescents “met our rigorous standards,” FDA vaccine chief Dr. Peter Marks said.

Van Enk says parents should feel confident the vaccine is safe and effective.

“The safety profile is exactly the same. It’s just as safe in those kids as it is in adults, so medically speaking, it’s a total win for the vaccine,” Van Enk said.

John Helmholdt, a spokesperson with Grand Rapids Public Schools, says the district has been awaiting approval of the Pfizer vaccine for younger age groups and is working to make the vaccine accessible.

“We’re opening three school-based vaccine clinics where we will be administering the Pfizer vaccine for students age 16 or older,” Helmholdt said.

GRPS parents and caregivers are also eligible to make an appointment for the clinics, which will be held at schools throughout the city this week.

The district is waiting for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to officially sign off, along with the county health department, before it looks at how it can assist the 12- to 15-year-old population in becoming vaccinated.

“This is not required. It’s not mandated. But we are going to communicate about its availability, its accessibility and about how simple and easy it is,” Helmholdt said.