Now that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for children ages 12 and up — and Moderna released preliminary findings suggesting it shot also works in kids as young as 12 — vaccination is no longer just a hypothetical for many parents. But many moms and dads are wary of having their children roll up their sleeves — now or down the road. In one survey, just 30% of parents indicated they planned to get their children vaccinated as soon the option was available.
So, HuffPost Parents spoke with several pediatricians and infectious disease specialists to ask some of the most pressing and most common questions parents have.
1. Why should I get my child vaccinated?
“Many parents worry that vaccines are being pushed on children solely to help us achieve more population immunity,” pediatrician Dr. Kelly Fradin, who runs the popular Instagram account Advice I Give My Friends and authored the recent book “Parenting in a Pandemic,” told HuffPost.
And yes, experts do believe vaccinating kids will play a major role in bringing the pandemic to an end — whether we achieve herd immunity or not.
But children will also “reap substantial, direct benefits from vaccination,” Fradin said. “We saw more deaths from COVID-19 in children than in any recent years from influenza. Being hospitalized for COVID-19 or the rare MIS-C are also worth avoiding.”
And the data from a Pfizer trial in adolescents found that the vaccine was 100% effective at preventing COVID-19. That’s even more effective than in adults.
Since the pandemic began, more than 3.85 million children in the United States have tested positive for COVID-19. Kids now account for nearly a quarter of all new cases in the United States.
“What we’re seeing is that the vast majority of new cases have been occurring in young children, so that’s a major problem,” said Dr. Tina Tan, attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases and a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
Vaccinating children not only protects them against COVID-19, it also prevents transmission “so that we don’t start to create more variants that may not be responsive to the vaccine,” Tan pointed out.
2. What are the risks of vaccinating my child?
The Pfizer vaccine was studied in more than 2,000 adolescents. Half received a placebo, while the other half received two doses of the vaccine — the same dosage that older teens and adults receive. That trial data was vetted by officials with the Food and Drug Administration as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The American Academy of Pediatrics has reviewed it and has given vaccination of adolescents a green light. In other words, this trial data has been heavily scrutinized, and experts all believe the vaccine is safe.
About 6% of adolescents who received the vaccine in the study experienced an “adverse event” of some kind — different than the expected common side effects — and included things like swollen lymph nodes.
Within that large group of adverse events were five serious ones, including one child who experienced abdominal pain, constipation, and intermittent nerve pain. Others reported depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. But crucially, none of those serious events were found to be related to the vaccine itself, and no deaths were reported. Additionally, there were no reports of blood clots, serious allergic reactions, or a temporary facial paralysis called Bell’s palsy — all of which have been reported, or have been concerns, in adults.
Nor are researchers concerned that children who are vaccinated might go on to develop MIS-C, a rare complication that can occur in children who are infected with COVID-19 weeks after their initial exposure.
“It’s a little bit different immunologic response that you have to natural disease versus a vaccine,” explained Tan.
The CDC announced recently that it is investigating several dozen reports that teenagers and young adults have experienced myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart, after vaccination — but the group has emphasized that it is too soon to tell whether there is any connection at all. “It may simply be a coincidence that some people are developing myocarditis after vaccination,” one infectious disease specialist told The New York Times.
3. What are the most common side effects?
Adolescents in the Pfizer clinical trial most commonly experienced pain at the injection site, fatigue, headache, chills, muscle pain, fever and joint pain — all of which are completely in line with what we know from trials and real-world data in older teens and adults.
“They’re really the same things that parents probably experienced themselves,” said Dr. Hailey Nelson, a complex care pediatrician at Valley Children’s Healthcare in California.
“As a parent, my thing is prepare your child. Like, ‘Hey, I didn’t feel good after my second dose. This is why you’re getting vaccinated,’ so that your child knows what the perks are and why they’re going through this,” Nelson said. “And then you plan ahead. I’m all for renting a movie. Get them extra ice cream or whatever their treat is. Give them some Tylenol or ibuprofen, and the next day they’re gong to feel fine.”
As for the Moderna vaccine, there’s just not as much data yet. The company said it intends to submit its data on teens to the FDA by early next month, at which point we’ll know a lot more. For now, however, the preliminary results Moderna has released to date suggest its vaccine is also safe for teens, and the most common side effects are very similar to what adults experience — like sore arms, headaches and fatigue.
4. What will the sign-up process be like?
Right now, it’s unlikely that children will head to their pediatricians’ offices to get vaccinated, simply because most do not have the storage facilities needed for the Pfizer vaccine. It needs to be kept at temperatures colder than Antarctica in the winter, which is not something every medical office can do.
“The way that this vaccine is rolling out to the 12- to 15-year-old population is that many of the large children’s hospitals are giving it,” Tan said. “There are some community hospitals that are administering it. All the mass vaccination centers in the different states are administering it. And there are some pharmacies that are administering it.”
Finding your child an appointment might take a bit of sleuthing and patience, but the good news is that it should not be as difficult as it was for adults.
“At this point there are vaccines available,” said Nelson. “There’s vials and doses waiting and ready.”
And plenty of parents have already found their kids a slot. As of mid-May, more than 600,000 adolescents had received at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, according to the CDC.
5. What will change for my teen after vaccination?
A lot, actually. Because the CDC is increasingly clear that people who are fully vaccinated can “start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic,” the agency’s director said this week.
“Children who are vaccinated should be more free to socialize, travel, see friends, sing in a choir, play high-contact sports and overall return to normal,” Fradin said. “The children I know would all take the vaccine rather than continue to mask, test frequently or isolate following an exposure.”
6. Will schools require COVID-19 vaccines?
There aren’t any clear-cut answers at this point about whether schools can legally require students who are eligible to be vaccinated to do so before they return in the fall. Some colleges are already indicating that vaccination will be required for students looking to return for the next academic year.
Every state already requires at least some vaccines for children attending public school. But as Kristine Bowman, a law professor at Michigan State University, wrote in a recent post at The Conversation, “whether school districts can add to the list of required vaccines remains an open question, and may vary by state.”
7. Will boosters be necessary?
At this point, experts do not know how long immunity lasts after vaccination for either adults or children — though the best available data suggests at least for six months.
Researchers are actively studying that question and hope to have answers soon, as it will absolutely impact whether children need to get regular boosters. But there just isn’t enough data at this time to know.
8. When will my younger child be eligible?
“What we’re hoping is that by fall, so by the start of the school year, a vaccine will be available for children 6 years of age and up. But we’ll have to see how that rolls out,” Tan said. “For younger kids between 6 months and 6 years, it may not be until 2022 that a vaccine will become available to them.”
Pfizer and Moderna are already studying their vaccines in children under 12, and researchers are looking really closely at dosing. It may be that younger children do not require the same size dose as adolescents, older teenagers and adults.
“There are dose-related studies going on,” said Nelson. “Pfizer has come out and said that they will be done with those and have data published as soon as September.”
9. Does vaccinating my teen protect my not-yet-eligible younger kids in any way?
Yes. If you have an older child in your family who gets vaccinated, that indirectly confers additional protection to your younger child (or children). Think of it as a “cocoon strategy,” Tan said. By making sure everyone who is eligible to be immunized in your household is — including the adults — you’re cutting down transmission risk at home. Which might also change how you think about — and plan for — things like summer vacations, playdates and other get-togethers. (And it ultimately shows why it is so important to ask any friends or family you plan to interact with, or have your child interact with, whether they’ve been vaccinated.)
“You vaccinate everybody in your household who is eligible for vaccination,” Tan said. “So that if that child goes on vacation, and everybody who is around them that is eligible for the vaccine has gotten that vaccine, it’s much less likely that the child will be exposed to — and get — COVID.”
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.