What You Should Know About the COVID-19 Vaccine for Children
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends everyone ages 5 and older get a COVID-19 vaccine. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been approved for children ages 5-11; the vaccine is a two-dose series with three weeks between doses, and children are considered to be fully protected two weeks after the second dose.
“This vaccine is safe,” says Dr. Andi Shane, Division Chief of Pediatric Infectious Disease at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Emory University. “We have seen good immune responses in older children and adults, and we expect the same in younger children. This vaccine is the best way to prevent severe infections and also prevent the long-term complications from having a COVID infection. There have been a few break-through infections in those children who have been vaccinated, as there always are, but they have not had severe infections, and locally, there have been no deaths or hospitalizations due to COVID-19 in fully vaccinated children.”
One of the long-term complications is multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C). This condition can occur after COVID-19 infection and affects mostly school-age children. “Children between the ages of 5-11 have been the highest age group at risk for having MIS-C,” Shane says. Since Oct. 4, 2021, GA has had more than 300 cases of MIS-C.
Due to high levels of circulation of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, children and adults who have been vaccinated should continue masking, hand hygiene and other mitigation methods to prevent the spread of coronavirus. “The more people we get vaccinated, the more opportunities we’ll have to think about not universally masking,” Shane says. As cases drop and more people are vaccinated, mask mandates may be lifted, increasing the risk that unvaccinated kids could get COVID. “Unvaccinated children should continue wearing masks, even when vaccinated people no longer need masks,” she adds.
Families should try to schedule vaccinations with their pediatrician or a pharmacy as soon as possible. Kids with pre-existing conditions, such as asthma, and families with babies, grandparents or other vulnerable people at home, should make vaccinations a priority.
“I’d like a 100% vaccination rate, and that’s my goal,” Shane says. “When the vaccine comes out, people usually want to wait and see what happens, but the challenge with that approach is this is a two-dose series vaccine with a three-week wait time in between the first and second doses and two additional weeks before you’re fully protected. If you plan to travel for the holidays or other events, as well as return to in-person school and a more normal life, it is best to begin vaccination now.”
The main side effects of the vaccine have been sore arm or fatigue, which is more likely to occur after the second dose, especially in children who have not had COVID. In trials for the 5-11 age group, no cases of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, occurred. Rare occurrences of myocarditis developed in adolescents and young adults – mostly males – in the 12 and older population. Those children were followed very closely, and their heart symptoms have mostly resolved, Shane says. “Myocarditis can happen after natural COVID-19 infection, and it is more frequent after natural infection. You have to weigh the risks and benefits, and the risk of worse effects after natural infection are much, much higher. When there are break-through infections in vaccinated people, they are much less severe,” she adds.
The vaccination trials for ages 4 and younger are ongoing, but the goal is to vaccinate everyone in the family who can be vaccinated. If your family contains small children, Shane recommends limiting the number of people exposed to younger children, considering local vacations or celebrating the holidays with fewer family members. “Families should be fully vaccinated as quickly as possible to protect those who are unvaccinated,” she says.
Children ages 5-11 years are making up a greater proportion of total cases, and COVID-19 infection has become a top 10 leading cause of death in this age group, according to the CDC. The vaccine is based on immune maturity, which corresponds to age, not weight. Get the vaccine your child is eligible for; even if your child is on the cusp of turning 12, get the vaccine for ages 5-11.
Even if your child has had COVID-19, he should still get vaccinated. Based on data in adults, infected individuals have a lower risk of reinfection for at least 6 months, but protection is not 100% and likely lower against the Delta variant, according to the CDC. A previous case of COVID does not guarantee protection.
When scheduling COVID vaccinations, make sure to ask your pediatrician about other regularly scheduled vaccines, including the flu vaccine. “Flu vaccinations are extremely important,” Shane says. “These last two years, we’ve experienced two mild flu seasons, but we are always concerned about an active flu season. There is no way to predict. We urge everyone ages 6 months and older who are eligible for flu vaccines to get vaccinated as well. It is possible to get flu and COVID vaccines at the same time and on the same day. Parents are often concerned about overwhelming a child’s immune system, but it is completely safe to get the COVID-19 vaccine with any other vaccine.”
5 Strategies for Talking to Your Kids About COVID-19
Atlanta Parent spoke with Jody Baumstein, a Strong4Life licensed therapist, about how to help your child deal with the anxiety around the COVID-19 vaccine.
Start a conversation by asking open-ended questions. “We want to be careful not to make assumptions, because each child will feel differently. We also want to be mindful that we don’t put our own feelings or fears onto kids by asking, ‘Are you nervous?’ Instead, ask ‘How are you feeling about it?’ and then let them take the lead from there.”
Validate and normalize feelings. “Listen carefully to your child and repeat back exactly what you hear, without judging or interpreting. Let your child know that whatever they feel is normal and OK. Help them understand that feelings are temporary and can change moment to moment. Also, explain that it’s normal to feel more than one feeling at a time. For example, they may feel both excited and nervous, and that’s OK!”
Offer reassurance. “It’s common for kids to become anxious if they start thinking about the unknown or the worst-case scenarios. Also, sometimes kids can get worked up about something that’s not even true. Now more than ever, with access to social media, many kids are being inundated with a lot of information. Try to listen to what they are bringing up and correct any misinformation you hear. Reassure them by sticking to the facts and what you know in the present moment by reminding them that by getting the vaccine, they’re protecting themselves and others.”
Help them learning healthy coping skills. “We often have unrealistic expectations when it comes to kids being able to manage their feelings. Stress is a normal part of life, and kids need our help learning how to cope in healthy ways. It’s hard to learn something new when we are upset or anxious, so make sure to teach new skills when everyone is calm, rather than in the heat of the moment. Encourage your child to try lots of different coping skills to find what works best – and then practice it regularly, so it becomes familiar and routine. Help them see that it doesn’t have to take long or be too complicated. Taking deep breaths, using their senses to notice what’s around them, journaling, music or art can be very grounding and regulating.”
Build resilience. “It’s important to think about the long-term as much as possible. As tempting as it is to want to shield kids from things that are scary and overwhelming, experiences like this can ultimately build resilience, so they can better handle life’s ups and downs. By having open conversations, encouraging your child to express their feelings and teaching them how to cope in healthy ways, you are building their confidence and setting them up for success as they get older.”