Updated November 5, 2021 at 6:32 p.m.
Federal health officials have approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 — a change many California parents have been eagerly awaiting.
Dr. Beatrice Tetteh has been immunizing children ages 12 and up at her Sacramento pediatric office since the vaccine was approved for that age group in the spring. She said parents have been asking about scheduling appointments for younger children for weeks, and she’s had to tell them to wait until approval came through and doses arrived.
She’s also been talking with parents who are concerned about adverse effects.
“I don't see any specific concerns regarding safety other than, ‘OK, their arm’s going to be a little sore’,” she said.
She said she’s spent time trying to explain the science behind how the shots work.
“Same with any other vaccine, when after you've had it and it causes your body to have an immune response. Then it breaks down and is cleared in your body like anything else,” Tetteh said. “So it's not staying in your system any longer to do anything else to you.”
Tetteh is recommending all parents get their children vaccinated as soon as they can.
“By having their children immunized against COVID 19, it's not just helping keep their children healthy is also helping to keep them from passing on any illness to them,” she said. “And that helps reduce their chances of not going to work and also helps kids reduce their chances of not being able to go to school.”
Meanwhile, pharmacies, doctors’ offices, schools and clinics are preparing to give the shots. An estimated 28 million children nationally will become eligible for the vaccine, including 3.5 million in California.
Here’s some information about the change and what parents should do.
What does the latest approval mean?
In late October, the U.S Food and Drug Administration gave emergency use authorization for providers to give the Pfizer vaccine to children ages 5-11. A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel then recommended use of the vaccine in this age group, and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky later approved the agency’s recommendations,
Emergency use authorization allows for certain substances to be used in public health emergencies because scientists have deemed it safe, even if they haven’t gone through the full FDA approval process. Full FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine for children isn’t expected until next year.
Is the vaccine safe?
Pfizer found no safety issues with the vaccine for children in the clinical trials it conducted. The FDA also did its own study of more than 3,000 children and concluded the shots were safe. Children do experience mild side effects such as pain at the injection site, fever and achiness, but those symptoms typically last just a few days. The FDA data showed the vaccines was 91% effective in preventing COVID-19 in this group.
The dose approved for this age group is about one third as large as the dose used for teens and adults. Younger children get two injections 21 days apart.
A very small number of children have developed inflammation of the heart muscle, or myocarditis, after vaccination. Experts say this side effect is less common in young children than older children because it typically occurs after puberty.
Dr. Stephanie Leonard, an immunologist at Rady Children’s Hospital San Diego, said it’s also safe to vaccinate children in this age group for COVID-19 and the flu at the same time. She said if a child has had side effects to the flu shot in the past, such as a fever or bad muscle aches, parents might consider spacing out the shots.
“But if you do that you may get the same side effects both times,” she said. “So, you want to weigh your pros and cons. It’s a personal decision, but you can get them at the same time. There’s no safety issue.”
Should kids get the vaccine now or wait?
Health experts are urging parents to get their children vaccinated now, arguing that the risk of a child getting sick from the injections is far lower than the risk of becoming severely ill from COVID-19.
The FDA reports that 39% of COVID-19 cases in people younger than 18 are among children ages 5-11, and that there have been 146 deaths in this age group. Some children who contract COVID-19 experience long-term symptoms, or suffer a serious condition called multisystem inflammatory syndrome.
“Even though children may not end up in the hospital or dying from COVID, there’s still significant illness to be prevented among our children when it comes to COVID-19,” said Dr. Aimee Sisson, public health officer for Yolo County.
Gov. Gavin Newsom also urged families in a statement to get children immunized to increase the state’s overall protection from the virus.
“We’re moving swiftly to implement a robust and equitable vaccination program for 5-11-year-olds,” the statement read. “I urge families to get the facts on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine and take action to protect themselves and loved ones from COVID-19, especially as we head into the winter months.”
How does this affect what children can do?
Since the start of the pandemic, many parents have kept their unvaccinated children out of school and other activities in hopes of reducing the risk of bringing COVID-19 into the household. Some early research has shown that this may be detrimental to child development.
Once younger children are fully immunized, the American Academy of Pediatrics said parents “can enjoy greater peace of mind gathering with family members this winter and sending their children to school, sports and other events that were paused during the height of the pandemic.”
Health experts still say it’s important to use caution when gathering indoors, especially if some attendees aren’t fully immunized. That might mean masking while not eating and drinking or keeping six feet apart.
Where can we get the vaccine?
Parents should check with their childrens’ health provider about when vaccine appointments will become available. They can also check the state's MyTurn.ca.gov to make appointments at other locations.
If parents are in Yolo County, they can find County clinic locations at www.yolocounty.org/getvaccinated.
CVS: Appointments can be scheduled via the CVS scheduling website and begin Nov. 7.
Rite-Aid: Parents can use Rite Aid’s scheduling website to book an appointment for their child; appointments begin the week of Nov. 8.
Kaiser Permanente: Parents can schedule appointments now via Kaiser’s scheduling website.
UC Davis Medical Center: To set up an appointment, parents can go to MyTurn.ca.gov (enter zip code 95817) or use the MyUCDavisHealth website or app. Appointments start the week of Nov. 8.
Walgreens: Parents can schedule appointments now through Walgreens.com/ScheduleVaccine, the Walgreens app or by calling 1-800-Walgreens. The vaccine will start being administered Nov. 6.
Janelle Salanga contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. It has been corrected.
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