COVID-19 Vaccine Campaign Expands to Elementary-Age Children

WASHINGTON (AP) -
fda vaccine kids
Kid-sized doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. (Pfizer via AP)

The U.S. enters a new phase Wednesday in its COVID-19 vaccination campaign, with shots now available to millions of elementary-age children in what health officials hailed as a major breakthrough after more than 18 months of illness, hospitalizations, deaths and disrupted education.

With the federal government promising enough vaccine to protect the nation’s 28 million kids ages five to 11, pediatricians’ offices, pharmacies, hospitals, schools and health clinics were poised to begin the shots after the final okay late Tuesday.

“This is not going to be ‘The Hunger Games,’” said Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago’s public health commissioner, referring to the chaotic early national rollout of adult vaccines nearly a year ago. Chicago expected to have nearly enough vaccine in just the first week for nearly half of its 210,000 school-aged children, and many more doses later on.

“Our goal is to be ready, have a calm rollout,’’ Arwady said.

Kid-sized doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine cleared two final hurdles Tuesday — a recommendation from CDC advisers followed by a green light from Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There are children in the second grade who have never experienced a normal school year,” Walensky said. “Pediatric vaccination has the power to help us change all of that.”

Thousands of pediatricians pre-ordered doses, and Pfizer began shipments soon after the Food and Drug Administration’s decision Friday to authorize emergency use. Pfizer said it expects to make 19,000 shipments totaling about 11 million doses in the next several days, and that millions more will be available to order on a weekly basis.

The vaccine — one-third the dose given to older children and adults and administered with kid-sized needles — requires two doses three weeks apart, plus two more weeks for full protection to kick in.

“This is a big milestone for five- to 11-year-olds because they make up nearly 40% of children under 18,” said Dr. Jennifer Shu, a Decatur, Georgia, pediatrician, who received her first shipment Tuesday morning.

Many locations planned mass vaccination events in coming days. And while many pediatricians’ offices were expecting strong demand at least initially, almost two-thirds of parents recently polled by the Kaiser Family Foundation said they would either wait or not seek out the vaccines for their kids.

Government authorities said pediatricians and family doctors, whom parents depend on to give routine childhood vaccinations, could help build trust.

School closures throughout the pandemic have disproportionately burdened children of color, widening academic gaps and worsening mental health, according to data presented Tuesday to CDC advisers. That data showed more than 2,000 COVID-related school closures in just the first two months of the current school year. Advocates say getting school-aged kids vaccinated will reduce those disruptions.

A Pfizer study of 2,268 children found the vaccine was almost 91% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 infections. The FDA examined 3,100 vaccinated kids in concluding the shots are safe.

Some skeptics have questioned the need for kids to get vaccinated since they are less likely than adults to develop severe COVID-19. But with the Delta variant, they get infected and transmit “just as readily as adults do,’’ Dr. Anthony Fauci said at a recent White House briefing.

Since the pandemic began, at least 94 children aged five to 11 have died from COVID-19, more than 8,300 have been hospitalized and over 5,000 have developed a serious inflammatory condition linked to the coronavirus. Black and Latino youngsters and those with chronic conditions are among the hardest hit.

But while some health authorities say minorities should be over-represented in COVID-19 vaccine studies because they are disproportionately affected by the virus, nearly 80% of kids in Pfizer’s study were white. Black youngsters totaled 6%, Latinos 21%, Asians 6% and less than 1% were American Indian or Alaska or Hawaii natives.

Infected kids have contributed to the U.S. toll — almost 46 million infections and more than 740,000 deaths.