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Pfizer says its vaccine is safe for kids ages 5-11. Will parents buy in?

If authorized by the Food and Drug Administration, the vaccine could be a game changer for millions of American families with young children and could help bolster the country’s response as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreads.

By: New York Times |
Updated: September 21, 2021 10:40:27 am
Pfizer, vaccine for kids, Covid vaccine for kids, Pfizer-BioNTech, US kids covid, world news, Indian expressA nurse tends to a 2-month-old on a ventilator for respiratory failure because of COVID-19 at Children?s Hospital New Orleans on Aug. 18, 2021. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

Written by Sarah Mervosh and Dana Goldstein

With Pfizer-BioNTech’s announcement Monday that its COVID-19 vaccine had been shown to be safe and effective in low doses in children ages 5 to 11, a major question looms: How many parents will have it given to their children?

If authorized by the Food and Drug Administration, the vaccine could be a game changer for millions of American families with young children and could help bolster the country’s response as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreads. There are about 28 million children ages 5 to 11 in the United States, far more than the 17 million adolescents ages 12 to 15, who became eligible when the Pfizer vaccine rolled out to that age group in May.

But it remains to be seen how widely the vaccine will be accepted for the younger group. Uptake among older children has lagged, and polling indicates reservations among a significant chunk of parents.

Lorena Tule-Romain was up early Monday, getting ready to ferry her 7-year-old son to school in Dallas, when she turned on the television and heard the news.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is exciting,’ ” said Tule-Romain, 32, who felt an initial surge of hopefulness and relief. She has spent months living in limbo, declining birthday party invitations, holding off registering her son for orchestra in school and even canceling a recent trip to see her son’s grandparents in Atlanta.

Tule-Romain will be among those eagerly waiting to learn whether federal officials authorize the vaccine for the younger age group, a step that is expected to come first on an emergency-use basis, perhaps as soon as around Halloween.

However the FDA rules, Michelle Goebel, 36, of Carlsbad, California, said she is nowhere near ready to vaccinate her children, who are 8, 6 and 3, against COVID-19.

Although Goebel said she had been vaccinated herself, she expressed worry about the risks for her children, in part because of the relatively small size of children’s trials and the lack of long-term safety data. She said the potential risk from a new vaccine seemed to her to outweigh the benefit, because young children have been far less likely to become seriously sick from the virus than adults.

Only about 40% of children ages 12 to 15 have been fully vaccinated, compared with 66% of adults, according to federal data. Polling indicates that parental openness to the vaccine for their children decreases with the child’s age.

About 20% of parents of 12- to 17-year-olds said they definitely did not plan to get their child vaccinated, according to polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation published last month. The “definitely not” group grew to about 25% among parents of children ages 5 to 11 and to 30% among parents of children under 5.

René LaBerge, 53, of Katy, Texas, said she plans to vaccinate her 11-year-old son when he becomes eligible. “But I’m not impatient. I want them to do the work.”

She said she had heard about some rare, but serious, side effects in children, and she was eager for federal officials to thoroughly review the data before she makes her decision.

“I don’t want my son to take something that is unsafe,” she said, but she added, “I believe COVID is dangerous. There aren’t any good, easy answers here.”

Among the side effects scientists have been studying is myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart. In rare cases, the vaccine has led to myocarditis in young people. But a large Israeli study, based on electronic health records of 2 million people aged 16 and older, also found that COVID is far more likely to cause these heart problems.

The Pfizer trial results were greeted enthusiastically by many school administrators and teachers organizations, but are unlikely to lead to immediate policy changes.

“This is one huge step toward beating COVID and returning to normalcy. I don’t think it changes the conversation around vaccine requirements for kids,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national union.

Weingarten predicted there would not be widespread student vaccine mandates until the 2022-23 school year. She noted that parents and educators were still awaiting full FDA approval of vaccines for children ages 12 to 15 and that mandates for adults did not come until months after the shots first became available.

A significant barrier to child vaccination, she said, were widespread conspiracy theories about the shots impacting fertility.

“When people have these conversations prematurely about requirements, it adds to the distrust,” she said.

Only a single large school district — Los Angeles Unified — has mandated vaccination for those students already eligible for a shot, those 12 and older. On Monday, the district said it was not ready to respond to news about the Pfizer trial results for children under 12.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday that the promising results from Pfizer did not change his conviction that student vaccine mandates are the wrong approach. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said last month that student mandates would be “premature.”

Historically, it is states, not individual school systems, that determine which vaccines are necessary for school attendance. All 50 states currently mandate vaccination against diseases such as polio, measles and chickenpox.

Given the entrenched politicization of the coronavirus vaccine — with Republican parents much less likely to support vaccination — and the existence of widespread misinformation about the shots, many school leaders are hesitant to step out in front of the issue and are likely to await guidance from their states on how to handle it.

No state has mandated that children or adolescents be vaccinated against the coronavirus, and five states are currently banning such mandates, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

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