CDC panel recommends Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11

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Advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday unanimously recommended a COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11, effectively clearing the way for a pediatric vaccination drive that will kick off within days.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted 14-0 in favor of giving the Pfizer-BioNTech shots to the 28 million kids after presenters said the benefits of vaccination outweighed any risks to the age group, even if it accounts for only 0.01% of pandemic deaths in the U.S.

Committee members said they wanted to extend the vaccine campaign to youths to prevent as many infections, hospitalizations and deaths as they can, thwart persistent symptoms known as “long COVID,” and keep children in school. They also spoke in personal terms about wanting to protect their own children and grandchildren.

“We have seen the devastation of this disease and the disruption in our kids’ lives,” said Dr. Helen Keipp Talbot, an associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky must decide whether to accept or reject the recommendation in guidance to states that will kick off the vaccine push.

She is widely expected to green-light the pediatric vaccines after telling ACIP members that Tuesday’s milestone was “one that many of us have been very eager to see.”

She said the approval is one part of a broader effort to push the virus into the background of society.

“It is important that we also continue to vaccinate as many adults as possible to provide protection to children in the community,” she said.

White House officials said the first shipment of 15 million Pfizer vaccines for children, which use a smaller dose, are being pulled from freezers and packed in dry ice. The vaccine, which is given in two doses three weeks apart, will have an orange label to separate it from the shots for adults.

“While vaccinations may start later this week, the program will still be ramping up to its full strength, with millions more doses packed, shipped, and delivered, and thousands of additional sites coming online each day,” White House COVID-19 Coordinator Jeff Zients said Monday. “Starting the week of Nov. 8th, the kids’ vaccination program will be fully up and running.”

He said the U.S. has secured enough doses for all 28 million children in the newly eligible age group.

The operation will focus on pediatric offices and pharmacies instead of the mass-vaccination sites that were common during the rollout for adults.

ACIP’s discussion followed the FDA’s decision to approve the vaccine for ages 5 to 11 on Friday.

Regulators said the shots were 91% effective against disease in trials and will help parents breathe a sigh of relief amid the pandemic.

Yet FDA advisers had struggled at times over whether parents needed to vaccinate healthy kids in an age group that has suffered 94 out of nearly 750,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S.

Part of the debate centered on myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, that has been linked to messenger-RNA vaccination, particularly in young males.

CDC presenters said Tuesday they have not identified any deaths from vaccine-induced myocarditis and that the coronavirus itself poses a bigger risk to heart health.

There were no reports of myocarditis in the Pfizer trial that collected safety data from more than 3,000 kids. 

Presenters said that might not have been a big enough sample to get the full picture of the risk of vaccine-induced myocarditis but they would expect rates in the 5-11 age group to be lower than in adolescents and young adults.

While some parents are eager to get their children vaccinated, many are leery.

Fewer than one-third of parents plan to vaccinate their children “right away” once the shots become available to ages 5 to 11, according to polling released last week.

The Kaiser Family Foundation said 27% plan to act immediately. Another 33% of parents told KFF they would “wait and see” how the vaccine works in other children before making a decision, while 30% said they definitely will not get the vaccine for their children ages 5 to 11.

More than three-quarters of parents, 76%, told KFF they are very or somewhat concerned that not enough is known about the long-term effects of the vaccine in children ages 5 to 11, while 71% were concerned their kids would feel side effects.

About two-thirds said they had concerns the vaccine may hurt their children’s fertility in the future. That is an often-repeated fear, even though there have been no signs the vaccines cause fertility problems and the CDC has encouraged pregnant people to get vaccinated.

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