As eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine expands and availability of doses increases, more and more families across the country are getting vaccinated to protect themselves against the coronavirus. At the current rate, up to four million adults are being vaccinated in the United States each day.
As more parents get vaccinated, it’s natural for them to have questions about when the rest of their families will be eligible, especially their children. In a big step forward for public health, this week the FDA approved emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in children from ages 12 to 15. This move is expected to greatly expand the number of people eligible for vaccination, and means middle school-age kids should be able to get the vaccine prior to the start of school in the fall. The next step is getting approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine advisory committee, which is expected to happen within days.
As the pandemic continues into its second year, informed decision-making by individual families is what it will take to increase vaccination rates and reach herd immunity in the general population so folks can live, work, and go to school safely. Medical experts have weighed in on the most commonly asked questions families have about the vaccine to help them make those choices going forward.
When will my child be eligible for the vaccine?
The two-dose Pfizer vaccine is close to being authorized for kids 12 and older. Most states have already begun scheduling shots for all people 16 and up, and the vaccine should be available for children between the ages of 12 and 15 as soon as later this week.
Trials are currently underway for all age groups, so researchers predict that 5- to 11-year-olds will become eligible in late 2021. Preschoolers, toddlers, and babies may not be able to get the vaccine until early next year. According to Pfizer, in September they plan to apply for approval for toddlers and young children, and anticipate requesting approval for the vaccine for infants in November. Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, whose vaccines are currently only in use for people over age 18, are currently testing in younger age groups as well.
Is the vaccine safe for kids?
Trials have been ongoing for months in every age group to ensure the safety and efficacy of the vaccines available to the public. As it stands, early evidence suggests the vaccines may be as much as 100% effective in 12- to 15-year olds which prompted the requests for emergency-use authorization of the drugs from the FDA.
The early data for all age groups is very promising, and researchers will continue to follow trial groups for several months before reporting the final data in order to ensure the results are consistent. Results from the adult trials are also relevant because of the similarity in adult and pediatric immune systems. If adults can take the vaccine without major side effects, it is most likely children can as well—it’s just a matter of determining the right dosage.
I heard COVID doesn’t affect kids as much, so why should they get vaccinated?
A recent poll conducted by ParentsTogether revealed that 70 percent of parents and guardians said either that they’d already been vaccinated or that they would probably get vaccinated, but only 58 percent said the same about their children. Of the rest, the majority said they were “not sure” about vaccinating their children and needed more information before making a determination.
While it’s true that children are less likely to die from COVID-19, it’s still a harsh reality that hundreds of children have died from the virus so far, and thousands more have become seriously ill. Additionally, new variants of the virus have led to surges in coronavirus infections in children, indicating they may be more transmissible among younger people. And even for children who do not become seriously ill, they may become a vector for the virus, contributing to community spread among the adults around them.
Still another risk to children is a serious complication known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C, in which a child’s immune system continues to react even once the virus has been eliminated. More than 3,000 kids have developed MIS-C in the weeks following COVID-19 infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), MIS-C can cause life-threatening problems with the heart and other organs.
In addition to the health and safety benefits for children who get the vaccine, it’s also worthwhile to point out that herd immunity will most likely not be reached without the participation of children as well, who make up around 22 percent of the US population. Each vaccinated person lowers the risk for everyone else around them. The sooner the whole family is vaccinated, the sooner everyone can get back to the things they’ve been missing during the pandemic. Experts and health officials agree that getting kids vaccinated is crucial to achieving herd immunity and ending the pandemic.
Will my kids be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine for school?
The answer to this question isn’t yet completely clear, in part because decisions like these are made on a local level, and also because the vaccines are still in trials for children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “Once a vaccine is approved, health authorities, including the CDC and the AAP, will recommend when and how children should get it. However, each state’s government decides which vaccines are required for school entry.” Either way, the AAP strongly urges parents to make sure all their kids’ routine vaccinations are up to date.
It’s worth noting that while decisions have yet to be made for COVID-19 vaccine requirements, vaccines have long been such an important public health tool that many institutions, including schools, have set vaccination requirements for decades for diseases such as polio or measles, mumps, and rubella.
What if I’m vaccinated but my kid isn’t?
Deciding whether or not to take calculated risks has been a huge part of our collective learning process during this pandemic. Each time we go to the grocery store, or walk down a busy street, we’re choosing to take a risk. Now that the vaccine is more widely available, it is greatly simplifying those risk calculations for families that include vaccinated people.
Once the adults in a family become fully vaccinated—specifically, two weeks after the last dose of vaccine, when maximum immunity has been reached—they become a significantly lower danger to everyone else around them. This can be helpful to consider when assessing the risks of different situations or activities for the family, since they are no longer likely to contract or spread the virus.
Dr. Leana Wen of the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health broke down the factors for parents to consider when deciding on family activities:
“For now, while the United States has a high baseline level of coronavirus circulating, it’s best for families with any unvaccinated individuals to see one another outdoors only, with members of different families spaced 6 feet apart. If children are playing together and can’t always abide by 6-foot distancing, they should be wearing masks.”
All of the safety precautions like staying outdoors and social distancing still apply at gatherings where there are any unvaccinated people of any age present. If a vaccinated adult does an otherwise higher-risk activity like returning to in-person work or going to the gym, experts say they are much less likely to transmit the virus to their unvaccinated family members—however, you should still avoid crowded settings and continue wearing a mask and social distancing whenever possible.
I’m still not sure. Does my whole family really need the vaccine?
Aside from protecting yourself and your immediate family, vaccinated folks are protecting everyone they come in contact with. Adults and teens transmit the virus to others at similar rates, regardless of whether they are showing symptoms or not, so getting vaccinated will ensure you aren’t unknowingly getting anyone else sick.
For now, the most helpful thing folks can do to slow the spread of the virus and save lives is to get vaccinated as soon as possible, and encourage friends and family to do the same. With each new vaccinated person we get closer to herd immunity and the end of the global pandemic.