The Food and Drug Administration took a key step this week toward making children ages 5 to 11 eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, as an advisory committee endorsed a child-size dose of the two-shot Pfizer vaccination.
The panel unanimously agreed that the vaccine’s benefits outweigh any possible risks, including heart inflammation, a rare side effect that has affected some young people post-vaccination.
The matter will now be taken up by the FDA, which likely will make its final decision in the next few days. Then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will weigh in. If it agrees, the 28 million children in that age group could start rolling up their sleeves right away — possibly by the end of next week.
So, what should parents do to prepare? Here’s what we know so far.
Shots should be available in pediatricians’ offices and pharmacies
The Biden administration has made clear that the vaccine rollout for younger kids will look different than when shots first became available to adults. Instead of mass vaccination sites, they’ll be given by children’s pediatricians or family doctors, at children’s hospitals, at pharmacies, and in community and rural health centers, the White House has said. Vaccines eventually could even be given in schools. That’s because the children’s doses aren’t just one-third the size given to teenagers and adults; they’re also a slightly different formulation, so they’re easier to store and distribute.
If you are really eager to have your child be one of the first in line, it might be worth checking with your child’s pediatrician to see if they’ve requested doses, although they might not be able to tell you at this point. Also, keep in mind that they are busy, particularly this time of year, when children deal with other seasonal viruses.
“Offices will announce it if they have it,” said Dr. Pam Zeitlin, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at National Jewish Health, who noted her clinic has already requested doses when they’re available. “I don’t want to unleash a barrage of calls to busy practices ahead of time.”
Experts are NOT anticipating a mad rush
When it comes to vaccine supply, public health officials have been pretty clear that there is no reason to fret that there won’t be enough doses or appointments.
“We have secured vaccine supply to vaccinate every child ages 5 through 11. And as soon as the vaccine is authorized by the FDA, we will begin shipping millions of doses nationwide,” the White House COVID-19 response coordinator said last week.
Plus, it’s not clear how many parents will rush to get their children vaccinated. A late September poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that only about one-third of American parents say they’ll get their 5 to 11-year-old vaccinated right away.
If you have questions, now is the time to talk to your child’s doctor
If you have any questions about the vaccine, or you’re considering waiting for a few months to see how other children fare first, reach out to your child’s pediatrician, experts urge. The Pfizer clinical trial data under review by the FDA is available for pediatricians to sift through, and the FDA meeting this week was available for them to watch online — which many health experts did. So they’ll be able to have a really informed conversation with you about the data, the process and, of course, your own child.
“I think for a lot of parents, the most important recommendation is going to come from their pediatrician,” said Dr. Adam Ratner, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone Health.
That said, pediatricians and other children’s health experts are overwhelmingly in favor of vaccinating children. Children now account for roughly a quarter of all reported COVID cases in the U.S.
The American Academy of Pediatrics points out more than 11 million older kids have already had both of their doses of COVID-19 vaccine, so there’s significant data showing the vaccine is safe in older children and adults. Also, in the Pfizer trial there were no severe adverse events reported related to the vaccine. (There were five totally unrelated severe adverse events reported, including a child who swallowed a penny.)
“We see the impact of the pandemic on children, both the direct impact — children get COVID, and a small number of children get super-sick, and this is a way of preventing that — and the indirect impact, like school disruptions,” said Ratner.
He also encouraged parents who are on the fence to tune into the regulatory process as it plays out over the coming days and weeks.
“It’s not just one person making a decision, it’s not just one committee. There are multiple layers here, there are really smart people on these committees and people who care about protecting the public and about protecting the people who get these vaccines,” Ratner said.
There’s no reason to wait for a different vaccine
The FDA and CDC are now looking at approval of the Pfizer vaccine, because the drugmaker is the only company that has submitted its data so far. Moderna has indicated it will do so soon, and Johnson & Johnson’s trials are ongoing.
There has been some evidence in adults that the Moderna shots might provide slightly longer-lasting immunity than Pfizer’s. But experts say that’s no reason to wait — especially now that regulators have approved a mix-and-match booster approach for adults, which eventually might be extended to kids.
“I would just go for ‘the sooner the better’ to get protection,” said Zeitlin. Though again, if you’ve got any specific concerns or questions, now is the time to pick up the phone and talk to your child’s doctor.
If you’ve got a big 11-year-old or 4-year-old — sit tight
Some parents of 11-year-olds who are big for their age have been wondering whether they should just go ahead and get them an adolescent or adult-size dose now. But experts say that’s not a good idea, because the vaccine dose is not only based on children’s weight ― it also takes into account the fact that younger children’s immune systems are different.
“While you may have an adult-size 10-year-old, that doesn’t necessarily mean the immune system is adult-size,” Dr. Frank Esper, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Cleveland Clinic Children’s, previously told HuffPost.
The same goes if you’ve got, say, a big 4-year-old and you’re eager to get them vaccinated once approval for the 5 to 11-year-old set comes through.
“This looks good for 5 to 11 sometime in November, which is just fantastic. I think 6 months to 5 years of age, that might be in the new year,” said Zeitlin.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.