When Can Children Get the COVID-19 Vaccine? What to Expect After Pfizer’s Approval for Kids 5 to 11

·6 min read
When Can Children Get the COVID-19 Vaccine? What to Expect After Pfizer’s Approval for Kids 5 to 11
  • The CDC now recommends that children between the ages of 5 and 11 receive Pfizer-BioBTech’s two-dose COVID-19 vaccine, clearing the way for vaccinations to begin.

  • The White House says that vaccinations for kids can begin as soon as November 3, but parents might have to wait until November 8 to get appointments.

  • Pfizer’s vaccine was approved for people between ages 12 and 15 in May—and this week’s decision means another 28 million Americans are now eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Two-thirds of all Americans have received at least one dose of the three available COVID-19 vaccines, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a crucial step toward the continued spread of COVID-19. But until this week, we've been left wondering: when can children get the COVID-19 vaccine? After months of waiting for an answer, now kids as young as 5 years old can begin rolling up their sleeves as soon as today.

CDC director Rochelle Walensky issued a recommendation late on November 2 that children between the ages of 5 and 11 receive Pfizer’s two-dose COVID-19 vaccine. This follows the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) October 29 approval, clearing the way for the 28 million Americans in this age group to be vaccinated. Now, the White House says the vaccination effort will kick off starting next week.

Both the CDC and the FDA accepted Pfizer’s trial data, which shows “robust” protection against the SARS-CoV-2 virus in kids, clearing the way for emergency use authorization of the mRNA vaccine for all Americans 5 years old and up. (Pfizer first submitted its data on September 20.)

The FDA previously expanded its emergency use authorization of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children as young as 12 in May. The vaccine, now marketed as Comirnaty, received full FDA approval for people 16 and older in August. (The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are currently available for those 18 and up, since researchers are still awaiting the results of clinical trials in young people.)

When will younger children be able to receive their COVID-19 vaccines and inch the country closer to herd immunity? Here, doctors explain when kids under age 12 can expect to be vaccinated, plus why it’s crucial they get their jabs, too.

When will kids be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Now that both the CDC and the FDA recommend the vaccines for children from 5 to 11, vaccinations can begin as soon as today, but parents might need to wait until November 8. This is because the dosage is different for kids (people in this age group will receive one-third the dose given to older people) and even the necessary needles are smaller; not every clinic, pharmacy, or doctor’s office will be able to handle these vaccinations immediately.

“While we hope to see the first set of kids start to get vaccinated at the end of [this] week, the bulk of vaccines will be in their locations by the week of November 8,” Jeff Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, told NPR last week. “Between now and then, the program will be ramping up to its full strength.”

Why haven’t children been able to get the COVID-19 vaccine in the first place?

Adults were prioritized in clinical trials of the COVID-19 vaccines because they were the most susceptible to severe illness, says Adam Keating, M.D., a pediatrician at Cleveland Clinic in Wooster, OH. But now that the vaccines have become widely available, children are next in line—just in time to address a massive increase in SARS-CoV-2 cases among kids.

Young people are distinct enough from adults to warrant separate studies: They’re smaller and lighter, which impacts dose size. And because they’re still growing, their immune systems operate differently at each stage of childhood, says Allison Messina, M.D., chairman of the Division of Infectious Disease at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

“The older a child gets, the more their bodies are going to behave like a young adult,” Dr. Messina explains. That’s why older children, ages 12 and up, were the second group to be cleared for vaccinations, followed by 5- to 11-year-olds. Younger kids will require even more research, meaning they’ll be the last to receive approval.

Is Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine safe for children?

Per its trial results, the Pfizer vaccine is remarkably effective among younger children. The trial included 2,268 people between the ages of 5 and 11; two-thirds of them received two doses of the mRNA vaccine spaced three weeks apart, while one-third received a placebo. Those who received a 10-microgram dose of the vaccine (a fraction of the 30-microgram dose administered in those 12 and up) had a strong immune response. Side effects included fever, chills, headache, and injection site pain, identical to those reported in adults.

In other words, the trial was a success—and proof that safe vaccinations against COVID-19 can soon begin among school-age children. Pfizer plans to seek vaccine authorization for children ages 2 to 5 and six months to 2 years by the end of the year.

Moderna, meanwhile, announced in May that its vaccine is 96% effective in people aged 12 to 17; the company is currently seeking FDA approval for this age group, and clinical trials with kids as young as six months are underway. (Its two-dose mRNA vaccine was approved for adolescents in Canada in August.) Johnson & Johnson has expanded its trials to adolescents ages 12 to 17, with plans to study younger kids in the future.

Why should children receive the COVID-19 vaccines?

Children are less likely to get seriously sick from COVID-19, per the CDC—but that doesn’t mean they’re immune. SARS-CoV-2 cases among kids are down slightly since the start of the school year, per the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), but they’re still a big issue: children made up nearly a quarter of new infections in the United States the week of October 28. At least 600 children have died from the novel coronavirus, according to the AAP.

Some children require hospitalization and intubation, just like adults, and many who have recovered deal with chronic COVID, per an analysis from earlier this year; those long COVID symptoms can be debilitating.

“Most of the time, this is not a severe disease for kids; some of the time, it is a devastating disease, and you don’t want that to be your child,” Dr. Messina says. “It doesn’t matter how rare a disease it is—when your child has it, it’s not rare anymore.”

Dr. Keating stresses that the vaccines have been proven to be trustworthy and effective. “It’s important to tell parents that while the vaccine approval happened fast, it wasn’t rushed,” he explains.

Getting kids vaccinated is also crucial to establishing widespread immunity, both experts emphasize. The vaccines are not 100% effective, and even if most adults receive it, unvaccinated kids might still spread COVID-19 to their peers, parents, and anyone else they meet—especially with the rise of highly transmissible variants like Delta. The virus requires susceptible hosts to spread, and if more and more people are fully vaccinated, it won’t have anywhere left to go.

This article is accurate as of press time. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly evolves and the scientific community’s understanding of the novel coronavirus develops, some of the information may have changed since it was last updated. While we aim to keep all of our stories up to date, please visit online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department to stay informed on the latest news. Always talk to your doctor for professional medical advice.

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