After several months of delay, federal officials seem ready to approve vaccination against COVID-19 for a population that to date has had no immunization options: children 6 months to 5 years old.
On Wednesday, a group of vaccine experts is scheduled to review data on Pfizer and Moderna products, which drug manufacturers say are safe and reduce the risk of infection, hospitalization and death of young children. On Tuesday, the group agreed that the benefits outweigh the risks of giving Moderna injections to children aged 6 to 17; Doses of Pfizer were approved last year for children 5 years of age and older.
The Food and Drug Administration has yet to sign the decisions of the advisory committee, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will have to determine how these vaccinations will be distributed to the public.
However, the demand for vaccinations in young children appears to be limited, according to national polls, with less than one in five parents deciding to immunize their children quickly. According to federal data, only one in three children between the ages of 5 and 11 – the youngest group now eligible for vaccination – has been vaccinated nationwide.
Although final confirmation is still pending, New Jersey has already ordered more than 51,000 pediatric doses, including 44,700 from Pfizer and 16,400 from Moderna, health officials said. Federal funding to cover the cost of vaccinations from COVID-19 for uninsured people of all ages ended in Aprilbut the state said vaccinations would still be available for free, even for those without insurance.
Government officials said initial vaccinations for young children would be available in about 190 locations, including government immunization sites – such as mega-sites in Burlington and Gloucester counties – pediatricians’ offices, hospitals, local health departments and community clinics. More than 100 pharmacies have also placed dose orders directly with the federal government, and other sites may appear online in the future, according to the state Department of Health.
“The department continues to work with community partners and other providers to expand local vaccination sites as needed and provide extended time and availability to meet community needs,” said Donna Leisner, director of communications for the Ministry of Health.
While children have not been affected by COVID-19 as much as the elderly, pediatricians and other experts insist the virus remains a danger to all ages. More than 8,500 young people across the country – including nearly 200 in New Jersey – have faced multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C, a rare but serious disease caused by COVID-19 infections; in the United States killed 69 people, one in New Jersey. In addition, an estimated 20% or more of these adolescents may also develop long-term COVID-19 disease, with persistent stomach problems, fatigue, brain fog, and more.
Nearly 2.4 million New Jersey residents have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since March 2020, according to government figures, and only 3.4% of them were under the age of 18. Minors make up only 2.3% of the more than 125,500 residents who have ever been hospitalized here, and 0.05% of them are fatal. But for 16 families who lost children – 11 of them under the age of 5, many of whom died in past winter surge – life will never be the same.
National data also show that young children face higher hospitalization and mortality rates than older children, which, according to FDA officials, underscores the need for immunization for this group under 5 years of age and younger. “Given the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic and the likelihood of continued transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in the coming months,” vaccine deployment “among this younger age group will help reduce serious illness and death in young children, officials said.
More than 6.9 million New Jersey residents received the primary batch of two doses of the vaccine, about eight out of 10 residents. But, according to government officials, only 3.9 million received at least one vaccination. That’s more than half of those eligible, but that’s a much smaller number than officials would like.
Vaccination rates among children lag behind from the beginning. While 72% of children aged 12 to 17 fired at least two shots, only 36% of children aged 5 to 11 completed this primary series, government officials said; the rate is 30% for this group nationwide.
The FDA’s Advisory Committee on Vaccines focuses on vaccine products for nearly 18 million American children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years. Both vaccines are mRNAs designed to elicit an immune response that protects against COVID-19, without the use of an attenuated form of the virus itself. These include:
- The Pfizer vaccine, which accounts for one-tenth of the adult dose, is given in three injections, three weeks apart for the first two and then a third two months later. Although data are limited, studies show that it is 80% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in children aged 6 months to 4 years. Only one of more than 1,300 subjects was hospitalized, Pfizer said, and no one died. The side effects were mostly mild.
- Moderna vaccine formulations for children, including a dose that is half the adult size for young people aged 6 to 11 years and one quarter for ages 6 months to 5 years. Children aged 12 to 17 will receive an adult-sized injection. To achieve full protection for all ages will require two injections, with the effectiveness against infection ranging from 51% for the youngest cohort to 93% among adolescents and adolescents, according to FDA documents. The minimum number of side effects was recorded.