Jun 16, 2022 - Health

A pandemic hurdle crossed

Illustration of a hand holding a toy syringe. 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Parents of infants and toddlers are a major step closer to having front-line protection against COVID after a key FDA committee on Wednesday unanimously recommended authorizing vaccines for kids as young as 6 months.

Why it matters: The shots will start going into little arms as early as next week if the FDA and CDC follow through on the recommendation.

What they're saying: "This is a huge milestone in the pandemic, not because it changes the trajectory of the virus but because of the way we as a country can think about where we are," Leana Wen, an emergency physician and a professor at George Washington University, told Axios.

  • "Right now, there are so many parents who have not themselves been able to resume their pre-pandemic lives. There are many families who have put off gatherings or travel or other aspects of normal life," Wen said. "This allows millions of families to change the way they perceive where they are."

Reality check: But expanding access to the youngest Americans may not reduce the overall spread since parents have already shown hesitancy in getting older kids vaccinated.

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) estimates 8.2 million, or just more than a third of kids (36%) ages 5 to 11 have gotten at least one shot as of June 8. And 14.8 million U.S. kids ages 12 to 17 (59%) have gotten at least one COVID shot.
  • Beyond hesitancy, there's also some state-sanctioned skepticism, as Florida became the only state not to pre-order vaccines for kids under 5. The state's surgeon general said he is opposed to the shots for that age group.

Zoom in: The overall risk of kids dying is very low, a factor the FDA advisory committee considered on Wednesday as members weighed the risks versus benefits of the vaccine.

  • But the outside experts said it was important that parents finally have the choice to offer that protection to their kids — particularly because kids still wind up in hospitals, transmit the virus to family members and run the risk of getting long COVID.
  • "Some parents are so concerned about the risk of exposure that they’re still completely isolating their children socially, perhaps above and beyond what the current CDC and AAP guidelines currently suggest," said Mark Sawyer, an infectious disease specialist at Rady Children's Hospital and a member of the committee said. "The availability of this vaccine will liberate those children to some extent.”

Between the lines: The success of any vaccination campaign hinges on messaging. There are some key differences between Pfizer and Moderna's vaccines — chief among them that Pfizer's requires a three-dose series while Moderna's would be a two-dose series — which could complicate that.

  • "It does worry me there was essentially no protection after dose two," said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, discussing Pfizer's efficacy in tests.
  • With three shots needed to build meaningful protection, "I do worry that parents aren't necessarily going to know they may not be protected at all and engage in the kind of activity that will put their child at risk," he added.

What we're watching: While the FDA and CDC are likely to follow the recommendations, there's the possibility the CDC could recommend one vaccine over the other.

  • And it's unclear whether there will be more boxes to check if Omicron-specific boosters become available in the fall, when experts warn a surge in cases is more likely.

The bottom line: Those seeking to go on summer trips or have their kids protected for daycare or school should schedule a visit with their pediatrician soon, said Sterling Ransone, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

  • Those with older children who are at least five months out from their primary COVID shots should consider getting a booster.
  • "People have gotten a little cabin fever and are finally going out. We want to get them protected when they're out and about," he said.
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