Teens and preteens in the U.S. have spent much of the past year distance learning. Many have missed out on birthday parties, book clubs, team sports and hanging out with groups of friends.
On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration signaled that relief from all that may be nigh: Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is now authorized for use for ages 12 to 15 (older teens and all adults were previously eligible).
The authorization expands the pool of eligible vaccine recipients to about 87% of the total U.S. population, covering an additional 17 million children, and comes at a time when people under age 18 account for one 1 of every 5 newly reported coronavirus infections.
The ability to get vaccinated is crucial for this group, Dr. Nia Heard-Garris, a pediatrician and researcher at Northwestern University’s School of Medicine, tells NPR. “It promotes the potential to gather and socialize and continue on — which is just as important for children as for adults.”
Kids and their parents have lots of questions. Here’s what we’ve learned so far:
When can this group start getting their shots?
A vaccine advisory committee to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is scheduled to meet Wednesday to make recommendations about how the vaccine should be used. It’s expected that the shots will be widely available to 12- to 15-year-olds as early as this week.
Is the number of doses or timing of this vaccine different for this age group than for adults?
No, everything about the dosing is the same: two shots of the Pfizer vaccine for full vaccination — each scheduled about 21 days apart. Previous studies of other vaccines, as well the clinical research on Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, confirm the dosing regimen should work well in this age group, providing robust immunity with few side effects.
How do we know it works in kids?
In the vaccine clinical trial, there were no cases of COVID-19 in the 1,100 children who received the Pfizer vaccine and 16 cases in the 1,100 children in the placebo group, according to the FDA. The trial also found that vaccinated adolescents had high levels of antibodies in their blood — a signal they had developed strong protective immunity.
“The vaccine was 100% effective in preventing COVID-19,” the FDA announced Monday. “At this time, data are not available to determine how long the vaccine will provide protection.”
Why should kids this age get vaccinated?
Children and adolescents can get sick from infection with the coronavirus and they can infect others. And while, in general, their cases tend to be less severe, some children have developed serious complications.
“We know that kids are less likely to die from COVID than, say, their 80-year-old grandparents,” says Freeman. “But that doesn’t mean that there’s zero risk.”
In the United States alone, tens of thousands of kids have been hospitalized with COVID-19 — including more than 3,000 who have developed a rare but dangerous inflammatory syndrome nicknamed MIS-C. During the pandemic, COVID-19 has been one of the leading causes of death among children, Dr. Sean O’Leary of the American Academy of Pediatrics tells NPR — some 300 to 600 children have died.
There are also increasing concerns about persistent, long-term effects of the viral infection — such as fatigue, respiratory issues and stomach problems — for some children who get COVID-19. “We know that teenagers can get things like long COVID, and that’s something that you would want to avoid,” Freeman says. “Student athletes can have long-lasting effects on their heart and have to have monitoring by a cardiologist. So that would be something that we would want to avoid.”
And while most children who catch the coronavirus develop few or no symptoms, they can still, inadvertently, transmit the virus to others. “Because they are more likely to be asymptomatic, that transmission can be silent,” Maldonado says, so vaccinating kids “just makes it so much easier to assure that children are not being infected.”
In particular, vaccinating young teens “could be a big game changer,” O’Leary notes, “because we’ve known all along that adolescents tend to be both more likely to get infected and to spread the infection, relative to the younger kids. So getting that population vaccinated is also going to make a difference in these dynamics.”
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