Just in time for the new school year, COVID vaccines are finally available for the nearly 20 million children under 5 in the US — the last portion of the population awaiting protection from the disease — after a four-month delay that put worried parents through hell, to say the least.
But even now, despite mostly gratitude and excitement, many caregivers can’t help but feel disappointed about how it all went down.
“I’m definitely excited and planning to get my kids vaccinated ASAP, [but] I’m still disheartened that it’s coming so late,” Kathleen Coda, mother to a 1- and a 3-year-old, said in an email. “It’s opening the world back up and feeling less resentful of everyone who decided to move on and stop taking precautions before our kids could be protected.”
The Pfizer vaccine for children 6 months to 4 years old was expected to be authorized in February, but the FDA abruptly changed its plans. The agency wanted to collect more data on the shots’ efficacy after clinical trials showed two doses didn’t offer enough protection in kids ages 2 to 4 (although it did in babies ages 6 months to 1 year.)
Two months later, in April, Moderna requested authorization for its vaccine for kids under 6 after a clinical trial found the shot to be safe and effective. But it wasn’t until June 15 that the FDA met to review the data for both shots.
Both the FDA and CDC agreed it made the most sense to wait until Pfizer released its data on a third dose, which it did at the end of May, and conduct a joint review, deciding to expand eligibility to kids under 5 for both shots at the same time. On June 18, the CDC endorsed the FDA’s decision, which came nearly eight months after the first vaccine was authorized for children between 5 and 11.
It was during this limbo period that what Coda had feared most came true. Her 1-year-old son, who at 6 weeks old had open-heart surgery to repair a defect, contracted COVID alongside his parents.
“All in all I just felt failed by the general public and the government agencies who recommended ending the mask mandates and other precautions before the vaccines were available for our kids,” Coda said. “And to have [my kids] get it right before [the vaccines] became available was just a kick in the pants.”
For many caregivers in the US, which is the first country in the world to offer COVID vaccines for kids as young as 6 months, the green light to vaccinate their babies and toddlers means they will no longer have to depend on others for their children’s safety.
“For so long I have just had to take calculated risks and make decisions about how social we can be, who we can spend time with, and practice radical acceptance about many, many people in my life choosing not to get vaccinated,” said Gretchen, a mother to 1-year-old twins who preferred to use only her first name. “At least now I can vaccinate my children and have that protection for them that isn’t dependent on anyone else,” she told BuzzFeed News in an email.
Vaccine rollout takes shaky first steps
Vaccine rollout for children under 5 won’t look like the ones for older kids and adults, according to Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID response coordinator.
Instead of mass vaccination sites, other more familiar locations like doctor’s offices, health clinics, pharmacies, and children’s hospitals will administer most of the jabs because that’s what parents prefer, Jha wrote on Twitter.
“We want to build a response and an availability system that is responsive to parents’ needs and desires,” he said, adding that we’ll see more and more vaccines and appointments open up as sites receive their first orders, which were shipped last week.
But eager caregivers are already running into issues, an early sign that they say reveals poor planning on the government’s end.
Lauren Thompson told us she called her local health department in Virginia last week to find out whether her county will have vaccines for kids under 5 as soon as they become available. She was told they were “waiting to see if there was a demand” for the shots before ordering any. Thompson’s pediatrician then told her their office was “interested” in the vaccine but won’t have it when it’s first available.
“It's really distressing that I had to call so many places to see what their plans were for distribution. We’ve known about this for a very long time and it’s clear there isn’t a plan for families like mine,” Thompson wrote in an email. “Families with littles have been largely ignored and this has been no different.”
Thompson said she’s racing to vaccinate her 3-year-old before she starts pre-K this upcoming school year. She managed to secure a vaccine appointment at Walgreens, but she said she would have traveled to a neighboring county that confirmed it was offering the shots at a government-run center — a trip she acknowledges isn’t something everyone is privileged enough to make.
“I’m grateful that I have access to PTO, as well as a car to be able to make the trip there,” she said. “Why was there no solid distribution plan?? Why is everything so inequitable?”
During a June 8 press call, government officials said they estimate that about 85% of children under 5 live within 5 miles of a potential vaccination site.
You can find nearby providers that have vaccines in stock on vaccines.gov.
Experts urge vaccination as coronavirus evolves
Since the pandemic began, more than 2.5 million children under 5 have contracted COVID, the latest CDC data shows.
COVID has become the fourth leading cause of death among babies and the fifth for children between ages 1 and 4 in the US. More than 200 children in this age group have died from the disease, according to death certificates as of May 11.
COVID has also caused more US deaths per year in this age group than other infectious diseases did before vaccines became available for them, including those caused by meningococcal bacteria and viruses like hepatitis A, varicella, rubella, and rotavirus.
Infections in this age group soared in January when the more contagious omicron variant took over. It’s the next variant, however, that doctors are worried about. That’s why they say children under 5 should still get vaccinated even if they’ve already had COVID: it may offer protection against future variants.
“Getting vaccinated after having COVID-19 will give your child the best defense against new variants of the virus,” Dr. Diego Hijano, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, wrote in an email. “If a child — or anyone — gets COVID-19, there is no way to predict if it is going to be a mild or a severe infection, and options to treat COVID-19 in young children are limited.”
Studies show that “hybrid immunity” (previous infection plus the vaccine) offers better protection for children than having just one or the other. Meanwhile, vaccines can produce antibodies that are more effective against all known coronavirus variants compared with infection alone.
“Keep in mind that the virus continues to change,” Hijano said. “The body’s defenses after getting the virus are not as protective against reinfection as the virus changes.”
Even healthy kids are at risk of severe illness, data shows. About half of the children under 5 who have been hospitalized with COVID so far had no underlying medical conditions.
“Kids can get COVID, they can become sick from it, and they can die from it,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote on Twitter. “It’s important to remember that children are not *supposed* to be in the hospital or die. And that’s because of vaccines.”
Not to mention, vaccination can prevent infection and therefore the risks of developing long COVID.
In February, Marissa Burgo told us parents like her had had a “vaccine dangled in from them” for far too long. Now, for the first time, she gets to safely experience activities with her 1-year-old that would ordinarily be considered mundane.
“For our family, the vaccine means swim lessons, toddler time at the library, going to friends’ houses and on a plane again since the mask mandate was lifted, among other things,” Burgo said in an email after the authorization. “It means feeling safe at my niece’s bat mitzvah in the fall where our large extended family will gather indoors. It means many, many long-awaited firsts for our baby and for us as a family.”
What to know about the COVID vaccines for babies and toddlers
The Pfizer vaccine
This vaccine is a three-dose series for kids under 5. The first two shots are separated by three to eight weeks. Then children will have to wait at least two months before getting their third.
Booster doses are not yet authorized for this age group. Only people ages 5 and older should get a booster at this time, the CDC says.
And yes, kids can get their COVID vaccines at the same time as other vaccinations.
The Pfizer vaccine series was about 80% effective in the clinical trial, but this was based on only 10 COVID cases that occurred during the study period. Still, health officials said there’s enough evidence that a third dose offers sufficient protection to prevent severe illness.
Fever, decreased appetite, drowsiness, and irritability were the most common vaccine side effects in kids 6 months to 1 year old. Fever, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, fatigue, chills, and new or worsened muscle or joint pain can occur in children ages 2 to 4.
All symptoms usually resolve within one to two days.
The Moderna vaccine
This vaccine is a two-dose series with the shots given one month apart.
It’s 51% effective in kids 6 months to 1 year old and 37% effective in kids between 2 and 5 years old. The level of protection this vaccine offers kids against the omicron variant is similar to that among adults who received the Moderna vaccine.
Side effects are similar to but slightly more intense than those associated with the Pfizer vaccine, including fatigue, chills, fever, headache, nausea, and pain at the injection site. It’s also possible to experience swelling in the armpit of the vaccinated arm.
All symptoms usually resolve within one to two days.