Children, COVID-19 and vaccines

With just weeks left of summer break, pediatricians and infectious disease doctors at University of Utah Health are urging parents to vaccinate eligible children before they head back to school to protect them from getting infected with COVID-19. Experts agree that COVID-19 vaccinations are the best way to protect children from getting the virus and spreading it to other children, family, friends, teachers and people in the community.

The Pfizer-BioNTech is currently the only COVID-19 vaccine available for children age 12 to 15 years old. Andrew Pavia, M.D., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at U of U Health, says scientific data shows the vaccine is safe and effective for this age group. The CDC recommends everyone 12 years and older to get a COVID-19 vaccination.

Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna launched trials for kids 12 and under in March 2021. Results are expected in the fall. Emergency use authorization for this age group is expected in late fall to mid-winter, according to the Food and Drug Administration, with authorization for those 6-11 years expected to come first followed by younger children.

Delta variant concerns

There are many reasons to vaccinate children against COVID-19, but the most pressing reason at this time is to protect them against the highly transmissible Delta variant that is causing a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the country. U of U Health has seen an increase in new COVID-19 cases among 15- to 40-year-olds, with the virus mostly infecting those who are not vaccinated. Currently, hospitalization rates are higher in these age groups than they were earlier in the pandemic. Pavia says this news is most worrisome for children under age 12 who are not able to get a COVID-19 vaccine and are returning to school in the fall.

Returning to school

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supports students to return to in-person learning, doing it safely is pivotal. The CDC’s recommendations include:

  • COVID-19 vaccinations for everyone who is eligible
  • Masking indoors by everyone age 2 and older who is not fully vaccinated
  • Maintaining at least three feet of physical distance between students in classrooms
  • Efficient ventilation
  • Frequent handwashing
  • Staying home when sick
  • COVID-19 testing
  • Contact tracing

The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees with CDC guidance. They also urge returning to in-person learning with masking for everyone who is not vaccinated but also recommends face masks regardless of vaccination status.

It takes five weeks for a person to gain immunity from the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Per CDC guidance, children can receive COVID-19 vaccines with other vaccines. U of U Health experts encourage parents to talk to their providers about COVID-19 vaccines.

Dismissing COVID-19 myths

There are many damaging myths about COVID-19, vaccines, and children that are preventing people from getting the protection they need. Pavia says it is critical to understand the facts. Anyone with questions should talk with a trusted, licensed health care provider.

Myth: COVID-19 is not a serious virus for children.

While the virus is not as serious as it is for adults, kids are still at risk of experiencing complications such as hospitalization, death, and perhaps most commonly, long COVID. According to Pavia, precise figures are not available but as many as 30 percent of children infected with COVID-19 will experience long-term risks associated with COVID-19 infection such as breathlessness, fatigue, brain fog, and aches. Another condition caused by the virus is MIS-C, a serious illness that causes harmful inflammation in different parts of the body. It takes three to six weeks after infection for the condition to develop. Most children who develop MIS-C need to be treated in the hospital, with most in the ICU.

Among minors, COVID-19 transmission is more prevalent in teenagers because their active social lives cause them to be major spreaders. Pavia says it’s important for this eligible age group to get vaccinated to help prevent community transmission. “If the vast majority of teenagers are vaccinated, schools won’t need to close down when there are outbreaks,” Pavia says. “They can continue to participate in after-school activities and attend school without interruption.”

Myth: Vaccines don’t work in kids.

In fact, COVID-19 vaccines work better in young adults than they do in older people, according to Pavia. The efficacy in the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine trial against significant disease was 100 percent.

Myth: It’s not safe for kids to get vaccinated.

The side effects experienced among kids are nearly identical as in adults. These include pain at the site of injection, headache, fever, and fatigue. Side effects typically last a day or two and can be treated with over-the-counter medications. Currently, the CDC is monitoring reports of myocarditis and pericarditis, an extremely rare and temporary condition associated with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that may occur in less than .001% of vaccinated people. The risk of heart involvement with COVID-19 infection or MIS-C is much higher. Since April 2021, there have been about a thousand reports of possible myocarditis out of the more than 177 million people who have received at least one dose of the vaccine in the U.S. Myocarditis and pericarditis have mostly been reported in males ages 16 years and older, and people who received treatment recovered quickly. The CDC continues to highly recommend COVID-19 vaccines because the risk of severe illness and complications associated with COVID-19 infection far outweigh any potential risk from vaccination.

Myth: COVID-19 vaccines impact fertility.

There is no evidence that COVID-19 negatively affects fertility or menstrual cycles. COVID-19 vaccines are considered safe and effective for pregnant women, women who are breastfeeding, and women who would like to have babies. Clinical trials are underway that will soon provide additional data.