The day that many parents of children under 5 have been anxiously waiting for throughout the COVID-19 pandemic is nearly here, with vaccines for infants and toddlers expected to be available early next week, a top Utah pediatrician said Friday.
“We’re almost there,” Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah and director of epidemiology at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital, said during a virtual news conference shortly after the federal Food and Drug Administration approved vaccines for children as young as 6 months old.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still needs to sign off, Pavia said parents may want to go ahead and make an appointment with their pediatrician or check with the Salt Lake County Health Department, which is already planning to start giving shots starting at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
The Utah Department of Health has already placed an order for more than 32,000 of the scaled-down vaccine doses to distribute to doctors, local health departments and other providers that will be shipped as soon as the final approval is given.
“This is really a big step. We’ve had several months now in which there’s been a lot of disease out there and younger children have not had any vaccine available to provide them with protection,” Pavia said. “This has caused a lot of heartache for parents.”’
Vaccines have been available to children 5 and older since last fall, but approval for infants and toddlers was delayed earlier this year for more study. What’s expected to be given the go-ahead are two reduced doses of the Moderna vaccine for those under 6, or three even smaller doses of the Pfizer vaccine for those under 5.
With Utah’s COVID-19 hospitalizations up, Salt Lake, Summit, Tooele, Grand and San Juan counties just landed at the CDC’s high community level for the virus, where masking is recommended for everyone and those at greater risk of becoming severely ill are advised to avoid nonessential indoor activities in public.
Pavia said it’s a myth that children don’t get sick from COVID-19.
“They do. I’ve seen it. It’s been pretty tragic,” he said, referring to statistics shared earlier Friday during a meeting of CDC advisers about the vaccines that showed “a huge upturn in hospitalizations” due to the virus during last winter’s surge driven by the omicron variant, especially among children too young to be vaccinated.
And more children are once again being hospitalized with COVID-19, Pavia said — between six and 12 at any given time compared to what he termed a lull in April that saw no more than one. That’s a “relatively modest increase,” given the spread of the virus, he said,
When it comes to deaths, Pavia said that’s “not a huge part of the burden of COVID,” with 202 confirmed deaths nationwide in children 1-4 years old due to COVID-19 through May 11, with the highest numbers in 15-17-year-olds and babies under 6 months old, although they can be protected before birth if their mothers get vaccinated while pregnant.
The virus is now the fourth leading cause of death for children under 1 and the fifth leading cause for children 1-4, he said, and poses a much larger threat than rubella, rotavirus or other diseases did prior to vaccines being routinely administered.
“We vaccinate our kids to protect against much smaller risks than the risk COVID imposes,” Pavia said.
Still, he said he understands some parents may have concerns about getting their young children vaccinated against COVID-19.
“They’re going to need to think it through and get some information, but when they do, I think that they will see the logic of getting their kids immunized and protected. That’s what we want for our children,” the doctor said, suggesting they bring their questions to a health care provider rather than looking to social media for answers.
There are side effects to the vaccines, Pavia said, including soreness at the injection site, sometimes redness, and rarely swelling of the lymph nodes in the armpit or the groin, depending on whether the vaccine is given in the arm or in the leg.
Fevers occur in roughly 7% to 8% of children after receiving a second dose of Pfizer, and in about 15% of those getting the Moderna vaccine, he said, likely because Pfizer is a smaller dose, one-tenth of what’s given to adults, while the Moderna dose is one-quarter of that.
Side effects tend to be “more bothersome” after the second dose, Pavia said.
For parents, he said, “this is not going to be all that easy,” since multiple shots spread out over weeks are required to fully vaccinate young children against COVID-19, “that means your child is going to have a sore arm or a sore leg, maybe a fever. So I’m not minimizing that part of it.”
But the benefits of vaccinating the last remaining group in the United States to be approved for the shots far outweigh the downsides, Pavia said, adding that if his children weren’t already grown, the choice “would be a no brainer for me.”