This week federal regulators approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11.
For months, COVID-19 cases in children have been on the rise. In August and September, cases climbed 400 percent. According to the state, there’s a one in four chance of being exposed to the virus by a child at home.
The number of children hospitalized also increased. Colorado is one of the worst COVID-19 hotspots in the country, with medical facilities nearing capacity. Getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent the spread of coronavirus and getting children vaccinated is part of the solution to Colorado’s high transmission.
Dr. Samuel Dominguez is a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital Colorado and an associate professor at University of Colorado School of Medicine. He talked to CPR about the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children.
Is the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine safe for children ages 5-11?
According to Dominguez, the short answer is yes. When determining the safety of a vaccine, drug makers do extensive studies and enroll people in trials to test how well the vaccine works and whether it has any side effects.
“We understand that people are nervous and it's OK to be nervous with anything new. There's always questions, and it's good to ask questions. It's good to be concerned,” Dominguez said. “Overall vaccines, in general, are the most studied and regulated of all medications that we use.”
In the case of the Pfizer vaccine, it’s already been administered to more than 192 million people in the U.S., which provides evidence for its safety in children. But Dominguez pointed out that kids are not just little adults, their reaction to diseases is different.
In a trial of more than 3,000 children ages 5 to 11, no serious side effects have been detected in the ongoing study. Adverse effects are monitored by local, state and federal agencies. Like in the case of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine pause, regulators are looking for any signs of a problem and will report those to the public.
“I think that should be reassuring to people,” Dominguez said. “We found those very quickly and were able to get that data and make changes appropriately.”
What about side effects, like myocarditis, in children from the vaccine?
Each year globally about 10 to 20 people out of every 100,000 develop myocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart muscle. The rare condition was detected in some adolescents after receiving the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, but experts say COVID-19 is much more likely to cause lasting heart damage.
“Right now we're seeing lots of kids, unfortunately, being hospitalized and in our ICU with COVID,” Dominguez said. “Even though COVID overall is a much more mild disease in children, there are a subset of kids who can get sick enough to be in the hospital. And so in terms of the risk-benefit analysis, from what we know so far the benefits in my opinion, far outweigh the risks, in terms of thinking about vaccination.”
Since the start of the pandemic, tens of thousands of children nationally have been hospitalized with COVID, and 657 have died, according to data collected by the CDC.
How effective is the vaccine for children?
Children showed comparable immune responses to people ages 16 to 25. The vaccine was found to be 90.7 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 in the 5 to 11 age group. Children, like adults, could still get breakthrough cases. If community transmission is high in your area, you should take necessary precautions to prevent an infection like wearing a face covering and avoiding crowded indoor spaces.
Does my kid get the same shot as an adult?
The Pfizer vaccine for children in this age category is formulated differently for children. It’s a smaller dose, but the child will still receive two doses a few weeks apart. They’re fully protected two weeks after the second dose.
Why is it important to get my children vaccinated against COVID-19?
Vaccination against COVID-19 is important for individuals and for the community. Children getting the vaccine makes them less susceptible to MIS-C or multisystem inflammatory syndrome, and long COVID.
“Kids right now, nationwide, are 25 percent of all cases and the more kids we can get vaccinated, the more likely we are to stop those chains of transmission, which really results in fewer infections overall in the whole population and fewer hospitalizations and fewer deaths,” Dominguez said. “It's us all doing our part to get us through this next phase of the pandemic.”
Where can my child get a COVID-19 vaccine?
Pharmacies, health clinics and county-run vaccination events are all offering COVID-19 vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds. Check with your health care provider or county health department for more information.
The pediatric vaccine campaign includes hundreds of clinic locations statewide, numerous partnerships, and a “robust equity effort so that every child, no matter their background, has access to this vaccine,” said Diana Herrero, Deputy Director of the Division of Disease Control and Public Health Response.
What if my child already had COVID-19, do they need to get vaccinated?
The immune response in vaccinated people is higher than in those who caught the virus. However, people who had COVID-19 and were vaccinated may have better immunity than those who were vaccinated but never sick with the virus. It’s recommended that children be vaccinated against COVID-19 even if they had the virus in the past.
Can children get the flu shot and the COVID-19 vaccine at the same time?
Yes, children can and should, according to Dominguez, get both the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu shot.
“We have just started to see the first few cases of influenza here in Colorado,” Dominguez said. “Not a lot of circulation yet, but we've had a few cases already, so it's here. Definitely get your flu shot.”
Will my school or district mandate the vaccine?
School districts across the state are determining their next steps now that the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for use in younger kids. So far, districts have not mandated the COVID-19 vaccine for students, but it’s possible they could.
In an interview with Colorado Matters in early November, Gov. Jared Polis didn't specify whether the state would push for school mandates.
"I don't know where it's going with regard to what different school districts will or won't require," he said. "From our perspective at the state, and the epidemiological perspective, if we can reach 50 to 60 percent, that will make a major impact in reducing the transmission of the virus."
The state mandates what vaccines school-aged children are required to get. Changes to those laws would go through a process at the state level. Colorado allows vaccine exemptions that make it easier than many other states to forgo vaccinations before attending school, which has contributed to the state's low childhood vaccination rate even before the pandemic.
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