The race to defeat the novel coronavirus took a major leap forward last week when the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authorized the use of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in children 12 to 15 years old.
Vaccine eligibility is expected to be expanded to even younger children in coming months, perhaps as young as 6 months. Children 16 and older were already eligible for the vaccine.
UF Health researcher and pediatrician Dr. Sonja A. Rasmussen is a professor in the departments of pediatrics and epidemiology in the UF College of Medicine and the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions. She provides pointers to parents on COVID-19 vaccinations and how to best protect their children as summer approaches.
Question: Why should children get vaccinated if they’re at low risk from COVID-19?
Rasmussen: They’re at low risk. But they’re not at no risk. When you compare them to a 70-year-old, yes, they’re much less likely to get sick and die. But several hundred kids have died in the United States of COVID-19. So it’s not as if it’s totally benign. And some kids get the post-COVID-19 syndrome about a month later that is called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C. That is really serious in children. Kids can end up in the intensive care unit and some have died.
Additionally, the new variants worry me because so much is unknown about them, and they could cause more severe disease in kids.
Q: Is there any special hazard in getting a child vaccinated against COVID-19?
Rasmussen: No, none at all. Potential mild side effects are often similar to what you might see with other childhood vaccines: soreness at the injection site, mild fever, muscle aches, headaches. Based on the studies conducted in 12- to 15-year-olds, the side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines are similar to those we’ve seen in adults.
Vaccines authorized by the federal government for use in specific age groups have gone through rigorous clinical trials that clearly demonstrate both their high level of effectiveness and their safety profile. I trust the science behind these vaccines. The risk of not being vaccinated is far greater than the mild side effects some people experience with vaccination.
Q: If children are unvaccinated before their traditional summer activities begin, what should they do?
Rasmussen: Children need to continue to be protected. The good news is that we know a lot more now about how the virus spreads than we did a year ago. When unvaccinated children are indoors, they should continue with physical distancing and wearing masks. Outdoor activities are safer than indoor ones, but crowded events pose a higher risk, even if they are outdoors.
In short, kids can continue with most of their activities if they maintain sensible, proven precautions.
Q: If unvaccinated children are interacting with vaccinated adults, should they still take precautions?
Rasmussen: The information we have on the vaccine so far is that it protects people from getting sick from COVID-19. What we don’t know is if it protects a person from getting infected and being able to transmit to others. We’re doing a study here at UF Health right now where we’re trying to see if vaccination stops transmission among college students.
We don’t yet have the information we need to know the answer to that question. Until we know more, unvaccinated children, especially those who are in high-risk groups, need to take care even around people who are vaccinated.
Q: Are there other areas of concern involving children and COVID-19?
Rasmussen: Because of their concerns trying to protect their kids during the pandemic, many parents have been keeping them at home. And that means they may have missed their well-child checkup. Just because there’s COVID-19 out there doesn’t mean there’s not measles and mumps and pertussis, which is also known as whooping cough, and other sorts of diseases that can be prevented through vaccines.
I want parents to think right now as we’re starting to have a little bit of time off in the summer: Are my children caught up on their vaccinations? They should be assured that pediatricians know how to keep their offices very safe from COVID-19. Perhaps a coronavirus vaccine isn’t available to them yet. But now is a good time for them to get caught up on everything else.