CDC panel debate: should all students get the COVID vaccine?

Should all school-aged children receive Pfizer Pediatric COVID-19 vaccine? This is a question before an influential government advisory group on Tuesday.

The FDA has authorized the emergency use of children’s doses for children aged 5 to 11. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must also sign an agreement before widespread vaccinations can begin in this age group.

CDC consultants are weighing who will benefit the most when they discuss whether to recommend vaccinations for an additional 28 million children, or perhaps only for those most vulnerable to serious illness. Their recommendation rests with CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walenski, for final word.

“Today is a great day in this pandemic,” Walenski told the advisory group on Tuesday.

She said that while the risk of serious illness and death in young children is lower than in adults, it is real – and that COVID-19 has had a profound impact on the social, mental and educational well-being of young people, including increasing inequalities in learning.

“There are children in the second grade who have never had a normal school year,” Walensky said. “Childhood vaccinations can help us change all that.”

The shots at the little pens could begin this week as Pfizer is already packing and shipping the first orders, millions of doses, to states and pharmacies to be ready.

Doctors who have taken care of the hospitalized teens are hoping that parents will accept Pfizer’s childhood vaccinations, stating that they are safe and much better than gambling that the child will avoid the coronavirus infection.

“I have seen many children in this age group who have been seriously ill,” said Dr. Matthew Linam, an infectious disease specialist at Children’s Health Atlanta. “The risk of serious infection is still very real for this population.”

More than 8,300 children aged 5 to 11 were hospitalized, according to government figures, about a third of whom required intensive care. The CDC has recorded at least 94 deaths in this age group.

And while the U.S. has recently seen a drop in COVID-19 cases, experts are worried about another spike in vacation travel, as indoor activity rises in winter, where the coronavirus can spread more easily.

Pfizer Childhood Vaccines contain a third of the vaccine dose that has already been used to vaccinate millions of people 12 and older. Children 5 to 11 years old will receive two shots three weeks apart, on the same schedule as everyone else, but less vaccine per shot using a smaller needle.

A study of 2,268 young people found that a vaccine for children was almost 91% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 – based on 16 diagnoses of children who received sham vaccinations, compared with three who received the actual vaccination.

The FDA has tested more children, with a total of 3,100 vaccinated, and concluded the vaccines are safe. Younger children experienced similar or lesser reactions, such as hand pain, fever, or pain, than adolescents or young adults after high doses.

This study was not large enough to detect any extremely rare side effects, such as inflammation of the heart, which sometimes occurs after a second full dose, mostly in young men and adolescent boys. The FDA ultimately decided that the benefits of vaccination outweighed the likelihood that young children receiving a lower dose might also face this rare risk.

The FDA’s decision came after its own advisers tried to decide whether every young child needs a vaccine – a key issue in Tuesday’s discussions. Young people hospitalized with COVID-19 are more likely to have high-risk conditions such as obesity or diabetes, but otherwise healthy children can also become seriously ill.

And many pediatricians and parents demanded the protection of their children so that they could resume normal childhood activities without risking their health – or the fear of carrying the virus home to a more vulnerable family member.

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