Utah and the rest of the country are poised to take another “big step toward moving more towards normalcy” with federal approval to begin vaccinating adolescents as young as 12 years old against COVID-19 now apparently imminent.
“I am super excited about that, for what it means for children in Utah,” Dr. Neal Davis, Intermountain Healthcare medical director of pediatric community-based care, said of news reports that the Food and Drug Administration is preparing to authorize use of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds.
The New York Times reported Monday the decision is expected early next week but could come late this week, citing federal officials familiar with the agency’s plans. On Tuesday, Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla reportedly told investors in a conference call that the authorization should come “shortly.”
The company also said it plans to seek two new emergency authorizations from the FDA in September, one to allow the COVID-19 vaccine to be given to children 2 to 5 years old and a second, to allow it for children 5 to 11 years old, NPR reported. A possible request for children 6 months to 2 years old is expected in the fourth quarter.
President Joe Biden said Tuesday the administration is “ready to move immediately” if the FDA approves the request for 12-15 year olds, promising to make some 20,000 pharmacy sites nationwide ready to vaccinate them, as well as shipping doses to pediatricians in the coming weeks.
“We know that adolescents are at risk from COVID-19,” Biden said. “Though serious illness at that age range is rare, they can still get sick and spread the virus to others. So, my hope is that if the vaccine is authorized, parents will take advantage of it and get their kids vaccinated.”
Pfizer announced in late March that its vaccine, already available to 16- and 17-year-olds, proved highly effective in the younger age group in a clinical trial, leading to speculation federal approval could come in time for children to be fully vaccinated well before the new school year starts in the fall.
Vaccinating the young is a “critical step” to reaching what’s called herd immunity against the coronavirus, Davis said, particularly in Utah where nearly 30% of the state’s residents are under 18. Experts say at least 70% or more of the population must be vaccinated before the spread of the virus stalls.
Currently, only about 30% of Utah’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, meaning it has been at least two weeks since their final vaccine dose. That number rises to 40.4% among Utahns 16 and older, the group now eligible to get the shots.
“This is something that can help protect children, and it helps the entire community by decreasing the spread of COVID,” Davis said of vaccinating children. He said he’ll tell the parents of his patients that he’s vaccinating his own children, 13-year-old twins and a 15-year-old, so they’ll be able to enjoy summer sports camps and other activities.
“This is an immensely important step forward for what this means for schools, for extracurricular activities, for the way we imagine childhood and teen years,” he said, calling it “a really big deal to be able to get this kind of protection” for them.
While Davis said it will still be important to follow the guidance of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when it comes to children wearing face masks and taking other precautions against the virus after being vaccinated, the science is clear that for them — the vaccines are “a big step toward moving more toward normalcy.”
Caroline Moreno, equitable access manager for the Salt Lake County Health Department, said she and her husband got vaccinated against COVID-19 without a second thought, but did some research before deciding their 12-year-old daughter would also get the shots.
“I have put some thought into it. It’s not just an automatic for me,” Moreno said, adding, “You want to make an informed decision. It’s not something anybody should take lightly. Know what’s out there. Know what it is. Because there are side effects, yeah. I had side effects. Again, it’s just understanding the relative risk.”
She said while children may not pass along the virus as much as adults do and if they do contract COVID-19, for the most part will experience milder symptoms, even the healthiest are vulnerable to the childhood COVID-19 complication known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C, and can suffer severe illness that can lead to death.
“We’re going to get her vaccinated. She wants to get vaccinated” after qualifying to compete in an upcoming national ninja warriors event in Las Vegas.
Moreno said the Pfizer vaccine will be offered to those 12- to 15-years-old in Salt Lake County outreach vaccination clinics as soon as it’s approved. Shots have been available for all Utahns 16 and older since March 24, and there’s been a recent push to vaccinate 16- and 17-year-olds before the school year ends.
Davis said once the approval comes through, the vaccine should be available “fairly quickly” to Utah adolescents.
In the meantime, the pediatrician urged parents to contact their children’s doctors to make sure they’re up to date on other vaccinations now so they’ll be ready for the Pfizer shots, which can’t be given within two weeks of another vaccine, and require a 21-day wait between the first and second dose.