COVID-19 vaccinations for children as young as 5 years old could begin this week, after the shots received final approval from the federal government Tuesday as millions of downsized doses are already on the way to Utah and other states.
“This is really a big step forward to be able to make the lives of children better,” Dr. Neal Davis, medical director of pediatric community-based care for Intermountain Healthcare, said during a virtual news conference after a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory committee unanimously endorsed the shots.
The vote to allow children 5 to 11 years old to receive a lower dose of the Pfizer vaccine came after a daylong discussion focused on clinical trials that found the shots were 90.9% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 with no serious side effects.
As expected, the agency’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, formally backed the recommendation of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, an independent group of experts. That clears the way for young children to be vaccinated against the deadly virus.
“There has been a great deal of anticipation for parents surrounding the authorization of vaccines for our children,” Walensky said during the Biden administration’s weekly COVID-19 briefing Monday, adding, “I deeply understand the urgency and concern over providing the best protection to our children against the virus.”
She said for many families, the vaccine would “provide a great deal of comfort with every dose administered. Parents should feel comforted not just that their children will be protected but that this vaccine has gone through the necessary and rigorous evaluation that ensures the vaccine is safe and highly effective.”
Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration signed off on the vaccine for the age group, recommending one-third of the dose already available to those 12 and older in two shots, three weeks apart. Some 28 million children in the United States, including approximately 365,000 in Utah, would be eligible for the shots.
The White House announced Monday that shortly after the FDA’s authorization, 15 million pediatric doses started shipping to family doctors’ offices, pharmacies, children’s hospitals, community health centers, rural health clinics and other locations nationwide in anticipation the vaccine would get the go-ahead this week.
How many doses are coming to Utah?
The Utah Department of Health said 109,000 pediatric doses of the vaccine have been preordered and should start showing up in the state Tuesday, so providers could be ready to give the shots once the approval process was finished.
“There will be lots of options,” Rich Lakin, the state health department’s immunization director, said, including vaccination clinics through local health districts and health care systems. Intermountain Healthcare Primary Children’s Hospital is set to add COVID-19 vaccinations for children and families to a flu shot clinic Monday.
Lakin said Utah “has prepared for the distribution of 5- to 11-year-olds’ vaccine to family and pediatric offices, local health districts, pharmacies and other locations. If approved today, parents can start to contact their family physicians or go to other locations to get their 5- to 11-year-old vaccinated this week as early as Wednesday.”
Will Utahns vaccinate their kids?
Davis said his office in Murray is already taking appointments for children to get the shots starting Monday.
“A lot of parents are really excited for this moment. I want to emphasize that. This is a big day for children in the United States. Children have been impacted by COVID, both directly by its infection and also its impact on schools and other parts of their life,” the pediatrician said.
The COVID-19 vaccine is “very safe,” he said, with side effects similar to other vaccines given to children. “Kids can feel a little achy for a couple days, they can have fevers for a couple days,” especially after the second dose, he said.
Myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that has been a rare side effect of the coronavirus vaccine among young men, was not seen among the 5- to 11-year-olds given the shot in the clinical trials. The CDC advisory committee was told that age group was likely as a lower risk, in part because of the smaller dose.
A new Deseret News-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found parents with children under 18 are split over getting them vaccinated against COVID-19. The biggest reason given by parents who are dead-set against the shots for their children was that they did not believe the vaccine is necessary.
But Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Utah Health and director of hospital epidemiology at Primary Children’s Hospital, said recently that “children are really suffering” from the virus as cases and hospitalizations climb.
Due to the highly contagious delta variant that sparked a spike in cases in Utah and the rest of the United States, Pavia said more children have been stricken with COVID-19 in Utah since August than during the previous school year, including more than 10,000 who are 5 to 11 years old.
The doctor said not vaccinating children against COVID-19 is “rolling the dice” that they won’t end up sick enough to be hospitalized or face rare but serious side effects that can come even after a mild case of the virus, such as multisystem inflammatory syndrome or MIS-C, a serious disease that affects the heart or other organs.
What’s known as “long COVID-19” is also a possibility, Pavia said, a wide range of systems that persist including neurological and cognitive issues, shortness of breath, fatigue and pain. An estimated 1 in 10 children who have the virus will develop long COVID-19, he said.
In Utah, two young people have lost their lives to COVID-19, a boy between 1 and 14 years old and a girl believed to be between 15 and 17 years old. Both lived in Salt Lake County. Some 600 children 14 and younger have been hospitalized in Utah with the virus.
Nationwide, there have been 1.9 million cases of COVID-19 in children 5 to 11 since the pandemic began in early 2020, with 8300 hospitalizations, 2,316 MIS-C cases and 94 deaths, according to information presented to the CDC advisory committee.