A parent’s guide to the COVID-19 vaccine

Last updated: May 14, 2021
What you need to know to help protect your child from COVID-19.

Kids hanging out on your couch? You love those little ones. More than anything, you want to keep them healthy and safe. But as the pandemic drags on, you’re probably ready to get them back to school and their routines. And the best way to keep them safe when they’re there? Get them vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as they’re eligible.

Now, adolescents as young as 12 years old can receive the two-dose shot from Pfizer-BioNTech. The FDA issued emergency use authorization on May 10, 2021. 

“Like all other lifesaving immunizations, COVID vaccines are essential for protecting your child as well as family, friends, teachers, and others in your immediate and extended community,” says Kim Bower, MD, a family physician and senior medical director with Blue Shield of California Promise Health Plan.

Nearly 33 million shots have been administered in California. Ones for kids younger than 12 are likely coming soon. Here’s the latest science, most recent guidance, to help protect your child.  

COVID-19 and kids: What we know so far 

We’ve learned a lot this year about how COVID-19 affects children.

Children can and do get COVID-19. As of early May, nearly 13% of all cases in California were among children 17 and under. Plus, the number of cases in kids has been on the rise. That’s according to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The jump is likely due to several factors. One of the biggest? More adults are now vaccinated.

Thankfully, though, deaths have been rare. Out of 473,545 cases, 21 have died, according to the California Department of Public Health. (Kids make up nearly a quarter of California’s population.) Even in the country at large, deaths among children are still under 1%.

Kids are most likely to have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Only about 3% of total hospitalizations were kids, according to the AAP. An early study published in Pediatrics found that more than 9 out of 10 kids had mild, moderate, or no symptoms.  

Among those children who do feel sick, the most common symptoms are fever, cough, or tummy troubles, such as vomiting or diarrhea.

Some children have rarely developed a serious condition called multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) in the weeks following a COVID-19 infection. The condition causes inflammation in different parts of the body, including the lungs, heart, kidneys, and brain.

So far, about 3,100 kids in the U.S. have been affected and 36 have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most children recover with treatment. Still, it’s important to watch for the following signs and seek medical care if any develop: 

  • Trouble breathing
  • Pain or pressure in the chest that does not go away
  • New confusion
  • Inability to wake or stay awake
  • Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds, depending on skin tone
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Neck pain
  • Rash
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Feeling extra tired

Transmission in schools is low. Many studies show no increased infection risk if everyone wears a mask and takes precautions. That’s according to the California Department of Public Health and the CDC. Most kids with COVID-19 get it from adults at home or during other social gatherings.

Why kids need their own COVID-19 vaccine

Kids’ immune systems are different. Their bodies seem primed to recognize COVID-19 and mount a fast, effective attack. Some even shoot down the virus even before it can show up in a test. But those natural defenses don’t always work.

“COVID is a really dangerous virus,” says pediatrician Tanya Altmann, MD, a spokesperson for the AAP. “So even though kids tend to get less severe illness compared to adults, it can still cause serious disease. We have to take it very seriously.” And part of that is making sure the vaccine is safe and dosed correctly for young people.

So far, three vaccines (made by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson) are being given in the U.S. But only the Pfizer shot is authorized for adolescents 12 and up. In the meantime, all three companies are testing their vaccines to see how they work in younger children.

Pfizer recently reported that its shot is 100% effective for 12- to 15-year-olds. It has begun studies on kids 5 to 11 years old. In the future, Pfizer hopes to get the green light for children as young as 6 months. Moderna, too, is testing its vaccine on younger kids.

For middle- and high-schoolers, at least, it looks like summer can kick off with an actual shot.

To learn more about COVID-19, including vaccines, testing, and more, visit our member site.

The decision to vaccinate your kids

Are you on the fence about your child getting a COVID-19 shot? Kids’ infection rates are low, so some parents may feel that their children don’t need the vaccine. Or they may have concerns about safety and side effects.

To put parents’ minds at ease, Dr. Altmann points to the extensive research that has gone into the vaccines: “So far, all the evidence points to the mRNA vaccines being safe and effective for kids,” she says. “Right now the studies on younger children are not completed, so we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Dr. Bower is also encouraging parents to seriously consider getting their children vaccinated against COVID. “Getting children vaccinated will allow them to more safely engage in activities which are important to their development like spending time with friends, playing group games, and participating in social events,” says Dr. Bower.  “While it’s normal to feel a little anxious, the science behind these vaccines shows that they are safe, effective, and essential protection against COVID-19.”

What to do while you’re waiting

Nobody’s sure exactly when the vaccine will be available for all children. But while you wait, here are three important steps to take:

  1. Schedule a checkup. Lots of families have skipped regular well-care visits during the pandemic. So before your children head back to school, make sure they’re healthy from head to toe. You can also use the time to talk about any concerns with your doctor.
  2. Update their shots. The CDC advises that no other shots be given within two weeks of a COVID-19 vaccine. If your child is due for any non-COVID shots, now is the time to catch up.
  3. Help kids stay healthy and strong. Provide healthy meals and make sure they get plenty of outdoor time to run around. “It’s important for children to get enough sleep and spend time just playing and having fun,” says Dr. Altmann. “All of those things make for a happier kid and a stronger immune system.”

 

The information in this story is accurate as of press time and posting. To limit the spread of the coronavirus, it’s important to continue practicing social distancing (keeping at least 6 feet away from people outside your household) and washing your hands frequently. You should also be appropriately masked per CDC guidelines. Because the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, we encourage readers to follow the news and recommendations for their own communities by using the resources from the CDCWHO, their local public health department, and our COVID-19 member site.

All Californians ages 12 and older are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

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