The U.S. Food and Drug Administration vaccine advisory committee decision to approve the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 has generated enthusiasm in both parents and pediatricians.

There are still a few steps remaining before vaccinations can be administered, but the panel’s decision moves children one step closer to becoming eligible for the vaccine.

Dr. David Hess, CEO of WVU Uniontown Hospital and a pediatrician, said getting children vaccinated is “the right move.”

“The numbers are small, but we don’t want to see any kids getting ill – and we’re seeing kids getting very ill (from COVID-19),” Hess said.

Getting the vaccine “will make it safer for kids to be kids,” said Dr. Ned Ketyer, a pediatrician from AHN Pediatrics-Pediatric Alliance who recommends the vaccine for 5- to- 11-year-olds.

“Pediatricians are certainly excited, and I think a lot of parents are very excited that this vaccine will soon be available,” said Ketyer. “There is a lot of enthusiasm from parents who can’t wait to get this vaccine into the arms of kids to protect them, to keep them in school, to enable them to do the activities they love to do, to enable them to stay in sports.”

Allegheny Health Network has been receiving calls from parents asking to book appointments to get the shot, along with questions about the vaccine on its Facebook page.

If it receives final approval by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control – which could happen next week – the vaccine will be available in early November. Both Uniontown Hospital and AHN plan to hold vaccination clinics in upcoming weeks for children ages 5 to 11, and the vaccine will be available at most AHN pediatric offices.

The vaccine, which would be one-third the dose of the dose given to adults and children over the age of 12, would be given in two doses, administered three weeks apart.

At the AHN clinics, a second dose will be scheduled at the time the first dose is given.

Across the country, caseloads have dropped significantly in recent weeks, but the number of cases remains extremely high. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, there were 5,877 COVID-19 cases in students between the ages of 5 and 18 between Oct. 13 and 19, compared to 1,052 cases in the same age group during the same week in 2020.

Children are at far less risk of severe illness, hospitalization, or death.

Still, noted Ketyer, children have been impacted by COVID-19, and more than 600 children have died.

During August and September, COVID-19 was the sixth-leading cause of death among children between the ages of 5 and 15.

“And thousands have developed multi-inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C), and a lot of those kids who have had MIS-C have gone on to develop chronic problems. Kids are not immune from getting long-COVID,” said Ketyer. “It’s just important for people to understand while COVID is mild for most kids, it’s not mild for all kids.”

Pfizer’s study showed the vaccine is nearly 91% effective in preventing symptomatic infection in children, and the FDA vaccine panel felt the benefits of the Pfizer vaccine in that age group outweigh the risks of the most worrisome side effects, including a small risk of myocarditis.

The FDA panel believes the smaller dose young children would receive should reduce that risk.

“We hope to see the best of both worlds: keeping kids protected and reducing the very small numbers of myocarditis,” he said.

The bottom line, said Ketyer: “The COVID-19 vaccine is well-studied, and it’s a safe and effective vaccine. It’s more than 90% safe in preventing symptoms, and as vaccines go, that’s extraordinary. It will certainly keep your child from getting very sick or dying from (COVID).”

A mid-October survey by the COVID-19 Vaccine Education and Equity Project and the National Association of School Nurses showed two-thirds of parents were likely to get their children ages 5 to 11 vaccinated once the vaccine was available.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in September, about one-third of parents would vaccinate their 5- to- 11-year-old child “right away” once the vaccine is authorized; 32% said they would “wait and see” how the vaccine was working; and nearly a quarter of parents – 24% – said they definitely wouldn’t get their child vaccinated.

Ketyer advises parents who may be hesitant to talk to their pediatrician or family doctor.

“Call the pediatrician. That’s really important. If parents say they want to wait, or they’re skeptical, they should be talking it over with their pediatrician or their family doctor, talking it over with a health professional whose only interest is protecting their child’s health,” said Ketyer. “Vaccines are overwhelmingly accepted by parents in this country, and I think we’ll see that with this vaccine.”

Hess said nearly 50% of children who are already eligible have been vaccinated, and hopes parents will also vaccinate those ages 5 to 11 once its formally approved.

Doing that, he said, will move even more children back to normalcy and safety.

“We are very pleased to see the vaccine available and excited to give parents the option to get their 5 to 11-year-olds vaccinated...when weighing the risks, there’s a known evil out there, and it is COVID,” he said.

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