Children 5 to 11 years old are now eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
So what does all this mean for parents who are worried about the coronavirus, want their children to have the best chance to avoid school quarantines, and yet have lingering concerns about giving their child the shot?
Two federal agencies, two independent expert advisory panels and a safety review workgroup assessed the data and determined the Pfizer-BioNTech pediatric vaccine is safe for children.
The pediatric COVID-19 vaccine is a lower dosage than the one for those 12 and older. Children will still need two doses, however, spaced three weeks apart.
Due to the lower dosage, the federal government is sending out separate vials of the pediatric vaccine, which began arriving in the state this week.
The Spokesman-Review asked local pediatricians and experts some common questions about the new Pfizer pediatric vaccine.
Is the COVID vaccine for children safe?
The clinical trial for Pfizer’s pediatric vaccine tested the two-dose vaccine in about 3,000 children who were 5 to 11 years old.
The vaccine had an efficacy rate of 91%, which is promising given the spread of the delta variant nationwide.
None of these children experienced severe side effects. Some experienced minor ones like tenderness at the site of injection, or slight fever or headache.
Dr. Gretchen LaSalle, a MultiCare Rockwood family physician, said the success and safety of the Pfizer vaccine in adults and teenagers, some of whom have been vaccinated for several months now, are good signals for the safety of the pediatric vaccine.
While the Pfizer vaccine for children is a lower dosage than the Pfizer vaccine for teenagers and adults, it’s the same formulation, she said.
“We’ve had hundreds of millions of doses administered now, and by and large with mRNA vaccines – apart from myocarditis and pericarditis, which happens rarely and is less severe than if you had it after COVID – we’ve seen really nothing of major concern,” LaSalle said of infrequent inflammatory conditions that can happen in children.
Federal agencies and reporting systems, like Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, are monitoring the safety of the pediatric vaccine. Additionally, the clinical vaccine trials will continue for many months.
What kinds of side effects can I expect?
There were no severe side effects observed in the Pfizer pediatric vaccine trial.
Swelling or soreness at the injection site, fever, headaches or aches specifically after the second dose could be possible, similar to side effects noted after teenagers and adults receive the Pfizer vaccine.
These side effects are actually a good sign that the child’s immune system is working to learn how to fight off COVID.
Long-term effects from all vaccines are very rare, LaSalle said. So far, long-term effects from the Pfizer vaccine in adults, who were eligible to get vaccinated at the start of 2021, have not been seen.
“We really haven’t seen any long-term or surprise adverse events that happened later,” LaSalle said. “What we do see is that sort of thing happening with viruses themselves.”
Myocarditis or pericarditis, inflammation of the heart or tissue around the heart, is a very rare side effect that has been observed in adolescent boys following COVID-19 vaccination. The vast majority of these cases were diagnosed, treated and these people felt better quickly, however.
The risk of myocarditis is much higher after testing positive for COVID-19 than it is with the vaccine, LaSalle said.
LaSalle expects a side effect like myocarditis to be very rare among 5- to 11-year-olds because “that age group tends to suffer from that condition less generally,” she said.
As the vaccine is rolled out to more children, it’s possible that myocarditis might be seen more because those events are so rare that many, many children would need to be vaccinated for such a side effect to present itself.
Does my child really need to be vaccinated?
While case rates are beginning to decline, the state remains at a very high level of COVID-19 transmission. The delta variant is still the predominant variant in both Spokane County and the state.
From Oct. 10 to Oct. 24, more than 8,000 COVID-19 cases were confirmed among children and teens statewide.
Case rates are highest in northeastern Washington, where elementary-aged children represent the most COVID cases confirmed during those two weeks in October.
And while kids might not be as high-risk for developing severe symptoms with COVID, they can spread the virus to more vulnerable community members. Furthermore, as the pandemic continues, the risk to unvaccinated people grows.
“The more we allow this virus to dominate our society and be present, the higher chance it has to mutate to come up with yet another variant that may be more virulent than even delta,” said Dr. Mike Barsotti, president of the Washington chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
What are the risks and benefits to getting my child vaccinated?
There are risks and benefits to choosing whether to vaccinate your child. Experts and agency panels have all agreed the benefits far outweigh the risk for vaccination against COVID-19, though.
“Not vaccinating your child puts them at risk of getting the disease and/or spreading it,” Barsotti said.
A common concern about vaccination is that a child or teen might develop myocarditis, but so far, the risk for myocarditis is higher in teens who test positive for COVID-19 than those who get this condition after vaccination.
A risk of not getting your child vaccinated is them getting the virus and developing long COVID, multi-inflammatory syndrome or other compounding effects of the virus resulting in hospitalization or sometimes death.
Nationwide, 94 children in the 5- to 11-year-old age group have died from the virus. More than 8,000 children in this age group have been hospitalized for the virus.
“Kids, while generally speaking, may have milder disease,” LaSalle said. “But they’re not immune to serious outcomes.”
Barsotti also pointed to the statewide mental health crisis and general stress put on children due to isolation, and now the potential disruption of being sent home if they are exposed to COVID-19. Vaccines can keep kids in schools; state guidance allows children exposed to a positive case to stay in school if they are fully vaccinated.
Can my child pair the vaccine with other vaccinations?
Yes. The CDC allows children to receive other vaccinations along with their COVID-19 vaccine, and providers encourage parents to catch their children up on all their routine vaccinations.
With the season for influenza and respiratory syncytial virus coinciding with current COVID-19 rates, physicians are encouraging parents to vaccinate their children against COVID-19 and the flu this year.
I have more questions. Where can I get more information?
Contact your pediatrician or family physician if you have more questions. Additionally, the Department of Health has resources available online.
You can find a vaccine appointment in the coming days by using the state’s vaccine locator. Be sure to filter for the pediatric vaccine to make sure the provider carries the children’s doses.
You can also call (833)-VAX-HELP for more information.