The Food and Drug Administration has newly approved two covid-19 vaccines for young children, and approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to follow in the coming days. But we already know that parents have lots of questions about these new vaccines. Some surveys indicate that just 1 in 5 parents of kids under 5 are going to vaccinate their children right away. Others plan to wait and see. But one of the reasons the FDA approved the vaccines unanimously is that they are considered safe and effective at reducing risks — not just for kids, but for everyone kids interact with — from covid-19 and its variants.
We asked Public Health Reporter Jonathan Lambert about the latest news on the covid vaccines now available for children and the questions many parents have about them.
Grid: When and where is a covid-19 vaccine available for my child?
Jonathan Lambert: Right now, kids over 5 years old are eligible to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Kids over 12 get the same dosage as adults, and 5- to 11-year-olds get slightly less vaccine. Kids can get them from their local health providers, pharmacies and covid vaccination sites, depending on the state. Boosters are recommended for this age group too, but not until five months after the initial vaccination.
Kids under 5 are not currently eligible for vaccines, but the FDA recently authorized both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for kids as young as 6 months old. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still must sign off, which experts expect will happen, and shots could be available for youngsters as soon as Monday. The administration says it’s made 10 million kid-sized doses available for distribution once the vaccines get the final thumbs-up.
G: Why should kids and teens get vaccinated if illness tends to be less severe?
JL: It’s true that children have lower risk of serious illness and death from covid, but it’s still a dangerous disease and is deadlier than the flu. So far, 481 kids under 4 have died from covid, along with 366 5- to 11-year-olds, 382 12- to 15-year-olds and 310 16- to 17-year-olds, according to CDC data. More than 130,000 children have been hospitalized.
Vaccination also reduces the chance that kids will spread the virus to others and lessens risk of other complications, including a serious inflammatory condition and long covid.
G: Is the covid-19 vaccine free for children and teenagers in the U.S.?
JL: Yes, anyone currently eligible for a covid vaccine can get one free of charge, including children and teenagers.
G: What are the common side effects of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna covid-19 vaccine on children?
JL: Both vaccines are safe for kids, and side effects tended to be like what some adults experience after covid vaccines. Pain and swelling at the injection site are commonly reported, along with irritability, fatigue, decreased appetite, fever, headache and chills. These tend to resolve quickly, and Pfizer-BioNTech’s lower dose regime was associated with fewer side effects than Moderna’s.
Very rarely, cases of myocarditis and pericarditis, or inflammation of the heart, have been reported after covid vaccination for younger males (12 to 29 years old). But research has shown that people are about 17 times more likely to get myocarditis from the virus itself, making vaccination the better option.
G: Can children still get covid-19 even after they are vaccinated?
JL: Yes. The vaccines significantly reduce the chance of getting infected and sick, but they’re not perfect, especially against new omicron variants. For example, one study found that during the omicron surge, protection against infection from two doses of Pfizer-BioNTech fell from 66 percent to 51 percent, and protection against hospitalization dropped from 100 percent to 48 percent for 12- to 17-year-olds.
Moderna’s newly approved vaccine was 50 percent effective in preventing symptomatic illness in kids 6 to 23 months old, and about 37 percent effective for kids 2 to 5.
G: Should you get the covid-19 vaccine if you already had covid-19 and recovered?
JL: Yes. Getting vaccinated will lessen a kid’s chance of getting covid again and will train their immune system to better recognize SARS-CoV-2, which increases the odds that the body will fight off the virus more quickly, and with fewer symptoms, than if they weren’t vaccinated.
G: Which covid-19 vaccine should your child get?
JL: Whichever vaccine is available. Right now, there’s not enough real-world data to make direct comparisons of the two vaccines’ effectiveness in reducing infection or serious illness.
G: Does the covid-19 vaccine reduce the risk of getting “long covid” for children?
JL: The short answer is likely yes, but scientists are still working out by how much. In adults it may occur in as many as 1 in 5 cases. A recent study suggests as many as 25 percent of children and adolescents experience symptoms for longer than 1 month, including mood disturbances, fatigue and sleep disruption.
Long covid is a big umbrella term that could encompass anything from still experiencing slight shortness of breath months after the initial infection to debilitating fatigue, brain fog and exercise intolerance. That vagueness makes pinning down how much protection vaccines provide difficult, and estimates range widely. On the low end, a recent large study of veterans found that risk of exhibiting any symptom six months after infection was cut by only 15 percent by vaccination. Other studies have found higher numbers, often centering around 50 percent.
Of course, catching SARS-CoV-2 in the first place is a prerequisite for developing long covid, and getting vaccinated does reduce risk of infection.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.