Children under 5 cannot be vaccinated against Covid. Medics explain how to protect them during the omicron

Students in the 5-day Pre-K class at Christ Immanuel Unite Church line up to go outside after helping sort donated food.

Ben Hastie | MediaNews Group | Getty Images

Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 among children are on the rise, and one age group is currently particularly vulnerable: children under 5 years of age.

Infants under 4 years of age are the only age group in the US that are not eligible for vaccination, as the highly contagious variant Omicron is spreading throughout the population.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said earlier this month that there is no indication that omicron is making children sicker than past options. The unprecedented level of transmission across the country is likely responsible for the increase in hospitalizations, she said.

According to CDC data from 250 hospitals in 14 states, about 7 out of every 100,000 children under the age of 5 were hospitalized with Covid as of January 8, more than double the rate in December.

White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Wednesday that children are much less likely to get severe illness from Covid compared to adults, but the risk is not zero.

“If you look at children’s hospitals across the country, we have many children who are seriously ill with Covid-19 and require hospitalization, and some even die,” Fauci said.

Dr. Roberta DeBiasi said most of the children admitted to Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. with Covid during the omicron wave were under 5 years old.

“This is the vast majority of the unvaccinated group, that is, children under the age of 5,” said DeBiasi, head of the hospital’s infectious diseases department.

Dr. Andy Shane, director of infectious diseases at Atlanta Children’s Health, said many parents understandably feel out of control as the pandemic drags on with recurring waves of infection.

However, according to Shane, parents need to know that they are not powerless in the face of the virus and that they can take practical steps to protect their children. While children under the age of 5 cannot receive vaccines, parents can protect them by making sure everyone else in the family who is eligible for vaccinations is fully vaccinated and gets a booster shot, according to doctors who spoke to CNBC. All 12 years and older are currently eligible for a booster shot from Pfizer and BioNTech at least five months after receiving their second dose.

According to a real-world study by the UK Health Security Agency, people who are vaccinated and revaccinated have up to 75% protection against symptomatic omicron infection.

According to Dr. Allison Bartlett, an infectious disease specialist at Comer Children’s Hospital in Chicago, protecting babies and toddlers from Covid is particularly difficult because so few tools are available to protect them. They are not eligible for the vaccine, the CDC strongly discourages children under the age of 2 from wearing masks, and the FDA does not allow them over-the-counter Covid testing.

“They have three hits on them in terms of preventing infection,” Bartlett said. However, parents can protect them by using a full range of mitigation measures that reduce the risk of family members contracting the virus and spreading it to vulnerable groups, she said.

“It’s just much more important that all other family members and those in contact with children under 5 years of age wear their own masks and socially distance themselves, limit their activities outside the home and take all other risk reduction steps to help protect and protect the child,” said Bartlett.

Shane said many parents are understandably tired of the pandemic and want their children and families to be able to socialize normally again.

“It’s very difficult with these spikes that we have every couple of months where we have to back off and give up on what we really want to do,” Shane said. “But we really need to do this for short periods of time, at least until we have vaccinated and boosted everyone.”

On Wednesday, Fauci said he hoped the FDA could approve a vaccine for children under 5 next month, though he said there was no guarantee that would happen. Young children will likely need three doses because two injections did not produce an adequate immune response in children aged 2 to 4 years in Pfizer’s clinical trials. Pfizer said it didn’t find any safety issues during trials of doses for young children, which at 3 mcg each are much less than those for adults.

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