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Young Teens Can Now Get A COVID-19 Vaccine — But Convincing Parents Could Be Difficult

COVID-19 is now one of the top 10 causes of death for teens in the US.

Last updated on May 12, 2021, at 7:12 p.m. ET

Posted on May 12, 2021, at 3:35 p.m. ET

MediaNews Group via Getty Images

High school junior Molly Day gets her first Pfizer-BioNTech shot in Ridley, Pennsylvania, as part of a vaccine clinic for teens aged 16 to 18.

A CDC vaccine advisory panel voted overwhelmingly to approve Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine for adolescents ages 12 to 15 on Wednesday, clearing a major hurdle needed to start vaccinating kids against the disease.

The federal health agency swiftly endorsed the Wednesday vote, allowing the shots to immediately begin rolling out to nearly 17 million young teens. "CDC now recommends that this vaccine be used among this population, and providers may begin vaccinating them right away," CDC director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement on Wednesday evening. "I encourage parents with questions to talk to your child’s healthcare provider or your family doctor to learn more about the vaccine. "

On Monday, the FDA granted emergency authorization to Pfizer’s two-shot vaccine for younger teens.

“This is really an important issue for this summer,” said Camille Kotton, an infectious disease specialist at Harvard Medical School and a member of the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. “This is another way to get closer to the end of this horrible pandemic.” The vote was 14–0, with one panelist recusing themself from voting because of their involvement with a vaccine clinical trial.

The vote followed several hours of presentations of safety data from Pfizer and CDC scientists, as well as public comments. A study of more than 2,000 adolescents showed that the vaccine prevented 100% of COVID-19 infections — even asymptomatic cases — seven days after the second shot. Side effects were rare in the teens, similar to those seen in young adults, typically injection site pain, fatigue, headache, chills, muscle pain, fever, or joint pain about one to three days after the jab. The vaccine caused a significantly higher level of protective antibodies in young teens, compared to those 16 to 25, Pfizer vaccine scientist John Perez said.

“I would encourage all parents to get vaccinations for their children,” Walensky said at a Senate hearing on Tuesday. “These kids want their lives back. They want to go back to school. They want to go back to the things they love.”

During the presentation, CDC scientists reported that 9% of all new COVID-19 cases in the US occur among 12- to 17-year-olds and that there have been more than 1.5 million cases in this age group. Teens also saw higher odds than younger children of a dangerous inflammatory syndrome seen weeks or months after an infection, with 3,700 cases reported so far. COVID-19 is now one of the top 10 causes of death for teens in the US.

The rollout for younger teens will pull pediatricians, practiced at yearly school immunizations, into the nationwide vaccination campaign. “We have to speak not only to the patients, the adolescent, but also their parents,” said Nirav Shah, director of Maine CDC and president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, at an association briefing. He noted that parents can sign forms to allow vaccination at school clinics or, in Maine, give verbal consent. “It is an added wrinkle, but one we are ready for.”

But some state health officials at the briefing noted that getting teens vaccinated could be a challenge; in early polling, many parents have expressed hesitation. “Recent surveys suggest there are a low percentage of parents who would consent to their kids getting vaccinated,” said Shah, pointing to a survey conducted in April, which found that only 3 in 10 parents hope to get their kids immunized right away. “This is among many reasons why primary care doctors [and] family medicine physicians who are on the front lines speaking with kids and parents are critical.”

“This will help us all take one more step closer to population-level immunity,” he added, noting that immunized high school and middle school students will help prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in their communities. CDC guidance suggests that older children suffer more severely from COVID-19 than younger ones, and that Black and Latinx children are infected more often.

On Wednesday, CDC officials presented their own survey data, which suggested that about half of all parents intend for their teens to be vaccinated. During the public comment section of the meeting, a few parents repeated anti-vaccination talking points; they argued the risks of its side effects outweighed the risk of the disease and called for the panel to vote against the vaccine.

The CDC also unveiled a change in vaccine recommendations, which would allow multiple vaccines, including COVID-19 shots, to be administered at the same time. Some panel members called for a warning about vaccines with significant risks of side effects, such as the shingles vaccine, to be given along with the coronavirus ones.

In a Senate hearing on Tuesday, federal health officials said safety data for shots in kids younger than 12 is expected by late fall. An FDA advisory committee will outline the required safety steps for authorizing vaccines for those children in June.


UPDATE

This post has been updated to include CDC's endorsement of the panel recommendation.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.