COVID: CDC expert panel recommends vaccine for kids 5-11

An expert advisory panel to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unanimously recommended emergency use of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for kids ages 5-11 Tuesday, clearing the way for the agency to greenlight a mass vaccination effort of school-aged children before the end of the week.

In anticipation of the news, Bay Area county health departments and health care providers were busy preparing “kid friendly” clinics for the new wave of vaccine candidates, as 28 million children throughout the country will become eligible for special kid-sized jabs.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, anticipating the panel’s decision, said at the start of Tuesday’s meeting it is “likely to have tremendous impact” in controlling the disease. The agency estimated vaccinating all the newly eligible would reduce COVID-19 cases 8% through March, a drop of some 600,000 infections.

“Today is a monumental day in the course of the pandemic and one many of us have been eager to see,” said Walensky, whose expected recommendation following the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’ 14-0 vote will allow vaccinations to proceed.

While the panel’s recommendation is welcome news to many parents of school-aged kids, others with concerns about the shots’ safety and the need for them in an age group least affected by the virus fear it will be used to justify vaccine mandates.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced California will add the COVID-19 vaccines to the list of required immunizations for attending school, such as measles and mumps, once the Food and Drug Administration, fully approves them for adolescents and younger kids, which could come next year.

The FDA has fully approved Pfizer’s vaccine for ages 16 and older. It is authorized for emergency use after expedited review for ages 12-15, and the FDA expanded that last week to ages 5-11 after concluding the benefits outweigh the risks of rare side effects like heart inflammation seen in boys and young men.

President Joe Biden’s administration said it has procured enough vaccine for all U.S. children ages 5-11, and plans to have them distributed through large pediatric providers, temporary community and school vaccination clinics. Pfizer’s vaccine for young children is a different formula that can be kept at refrigerator temperatures and is given at a third of the dose for adults and teens.

Around the Bay Area, many parents were eager to get their kids inoculated as soon as possible, and some were frustrated at the lack of information about when and where the shots would be given.

Lori Schertzer Brody, whose 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son attend Bubb Elementary in Mountain View, said she’ll get them vaccinated the first weekend the shots are available for them.

“I want them to have their lives back and the best way is get their shots,” Brody said. “They need a mask-free world and normal life at school again.”

Philip Salcido, an Oakland legal assistant who was vaccinated in April and whose 6-year-old attends Yu Ming Charter School, also hopes to get him vaccinated as soon as possible, fearing long-term effects of a COVID-19 infection.

“That’s what really scared me,” Salcido said. “That’ll be a life sentence for a child.”

Other parents, however, remain hesitant about the shots for their kids, though they are reluctant to speak out publicly, fearing criticism from pro-vaccine neighbors.

The CDC indicated from a survey of about 1,000 people in September that only half of parents say they’re likely to get their children vaccinated.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California-San Francisco, sympathized with parents’ concerns Monday on Twitter, saying many “need more time.” She said that although the reduced dosage for kids 5-11 “seems very safe” and that she “will be vaccinating my 11 year old,” she’ll wait five weeks longer than the three weeks Pfizer recommends between the two shots as a precaution.

Other health experts felt authorization for vaccinating kids is long overdue. Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, expressed dismay Tuesday over the federal government’s sluggish pace of authorizing vaccines for kids.

“Back in September, I told my 9 year-old that he’d get his first shot of a COVID vaccine by Halloween,” Jha said on Twitter. “This morning, he reminded me that I had failed him.”

Pfizer tested its pediatric vaccine on 4,600 participants in a clinical trial, of whom 3,100 received the shots and 1,538 a placebo. There were no deaths or reports of heart inflammation, though CDC officials acknowledged those rare side effects would not be expected in a trial that size size.

The FDA noted that more than 247 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine for adults and teens have been given to recipients age 12 and older in the U.S.

During public comment, some like Martha Nolan, policy advisor for the HealthyWomen health advocacy group, urged the panel to make the vaccines available to children, arguing “we need to protect ourselves and more importantly our kids and grandkids.”

But others like Tia Severino, a self-described health advocate and independent journalist in Georgia, urged the panel not to recommend the shots.

“It is wrong to use our children as lab rats,” Severino said.

Dr. Grace Lee, the CDC panel’s chair and an associate chief medical officer at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and pediatrics professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, said she voted to recommend the shots in kids because they’re more effective than face masks at preventing the disease.

“Vaccines are the only consistent, reliable way we can provide that protection” for kids, Lee said, “other than cocooning them at home.”

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