By the end of the month, the United States will reach what Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, calls “a pivotal moment in the pandemic.”
“For the first time,” he said last week, “essentially every American, from our oldest to our youngest, will be eligible for the protection that vaccines provide.”
More than two years into the pandemic, COVID vaccines are expected to be ready for children under 5 – as soon as June 21 – after a series of meetings over the coming week as federal agencies prepare to authorize them.
With such a large part of the world left, are parents worried about the shots, despite consistently high infection rates and worrying new forms of infection?
For many people – especially in the highly immunized Bay Area – this is a moment that is long overdue.
Marissa C. Juarez Burdick of Sunnyvale said she “can’t get a 3-year-old vaccinated sooner.”
“The moment it’s ready, we’ll be banging the door for a shot in the arm ASAP!” he said. “I’m sick of delay, but, of course, I want it to take effect, so we wait. I’m sick of being constantly on alert when the rest of the adult world without children has moved on and left us behind.” Families below five years of age need it.
Preschooler parents like him are already checking out the Bay Area Vaccine Hunters Facebook group for how to secure an appointment for their tots before the post-authorization crowd. He has deferred too long summer day camps, pre-K and kindergarten plans, and visits to grandparents whose age puts him at higher risk of COVID-19.
“We’re traveling for the first time since pre-Covid because we just got to see family on the East Coast,” said Mirritt Cohen of San Francisco. Shots before they leave. “He will not be protected.”
But most preschooler parents don’t seem so keen. A Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor in April found that just 18% of American parents of children under 5 said they would get them vaccinated right away, down from 31% in January.
Of the rest, 38 per cent said they would wait and see, 11 per cent would get jabs only when needed and 27 per cent said they would definitely not vaccinate them.
This suggests fewer vaccinations for children aged 5-11 years than in those who became eligible last fall. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, as of June, only 35% of children have received a single dose of the vaccine and 29% have received both shots.
Health officials are having a hard time convincing parents to get their children vaccinated. For one, young children face relatively little exposure to the virus, and protection from shots has faded against current Omicron virus variants. Also studies indicate that three out of four children have already been infected with the COVID-19 virus. And there have been questions about whether rare but serious vaccine side effects such as heart swelling outweigh the benefits in children.
So if just one in five of the nearly 20 million American Tots under the age of 5 were vaccinated, would it make a significant difference in the fight against the pandemic?
Pediatricians and infectious disease experts say getting the shot is beneficial for children under the age of 5.
Chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stanford University School of Medicine, Dr. “The highest pediatric hospitalization rates have been in the 0 to 4 year age group,” said Yvonne Maldonado. “Current COVID-19 vaccines are highly safe and have been shown to be effective in preventing hospitalization and serious illness in children 5 years of age and older. They are likely to have a similar protective effect on infants and children under 5 years of age.”
Clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccination at UC Berkeley School of Public Health, Dr. John Swartzberg said he would support immunizing children under the age of 5 if the Food and Drug Administration finds the shots safe and effective in that age group.
“Although most children have been infected before, we cannot account for this immunity to be sufficiently protective against these new forms of oomicrons,” Swartzberg said. “At the peak of omicron growth in January this year, about 150 children died; that’s roughly the same number of children who die of influenza in an entire year.”
FDA vaccine experts meet Wednesday to consider emergency use authorization for both the two-dose Moderna and three-dose Pfizer vaccines for children under the age of 5. If the FDA authorizes one or both vaccines, vaccine experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will consider making a recommendation. Shots in Friday and Saturday meetings.
Jennifer Tong, associate chief medical officer for Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, said that assuming federal authorization, Santa Clara County expects to receive an under-5 vaccine shipment on the afternoon of June 20.
Once doses arrive, the county will open appointment scheduling online and by phone, Tong said. The county expects additional shipments to arrive in the next few weeks and that there will be enough vaccine for everyone who wants the shots. The county has pre-ordered similar amounts of both Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, but cautioned that it’s possible federal health officials will flag off only one of them.
Major pharmacies like Walgreens and Rite Aid say they can only vaccinate children 3 and older, so parents of young children won’t be able to give them the shot there. CVS plans to provide COVID-19 vaccinations to children aged 18 months to 4 years across its network of 1,100 MinuteClinic locations.
Contra Costa Health Services expects to be able to vaccinate children under the age of 5 at its sites, similar to other rollouts, soon after approval and vaccines arrive. But Alameda County said its vaccination strategy for this age group is focused on increasing the number of pediatric practices able to vaccinate their patients.
San Mateo County Health will not offer large-scale vaccine clinics to children under age 5 or its community clinics, but will instead provide staffing and administrative support to small-scale clinics and interested pediatric providers at early Head Start sites who serve publicly insured families.
Medical experts see the authorization of vaccines for this last age group as a major milestone in the fight against the virus.
“While hospitalizations and deaths are most striking among those 65 and older,” Maldonado said, “children should also have the opportunity to both survive and thrive.”