A parent’s guide to the COVID-19 vaccine
You love your kids. More than anything, you want to keep them healthy and safe. And one of the best ways to keep them safe now that they are back in school or daycare? Get them vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as they’re eligible.
“Like all other lifesaving immunizations, COVID-19 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.
Now, children as young as 5 years old can receive the Pfizer/Comirnaty vaccine, thanks to the FDA’s emergency use authorization – issued on November 2, 2021 . At least 27 million Californians age 12 and up have already had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
COVID-19 and kids: What we know so far
We’ve learned a lot this year about how COVID-19 affects children. As a result, the CDC and State of California continue to update COVID-19 guidance and requirements. Here are some key takeaways:
- Children can and do get COVID-19. As of early October, nearly 15% of all cases in California were among children 17 and under. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), child cases continue to rise. The jump is likely due to several factors, such as schools reopening and the rise of the Delta variant.
- All children age 12 and older who attend in-person schools in California – both public and private – will be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine once it is fully approved by the FDA. This process may take several months. But children as young as 5 can still get the vaccine now.
- Although child hospitalizations and deaths are far less compared to adults, children can get sick and spread COVID-19 to others. This can include those more susceptible to the disease, such as older adults and those with compromised immune systems. Also, while children are less likely to get severely ill from COVID-19, little is still known about the long-term physical, mental, and emotional impacts of infection.
- Some children have developed a rare but serious (and even deadly) condition called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (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. The median age for MIS-C is 9 years old, and half the children are between 5 and 13 years old.
Kids with a COVID-19 infection are most likely to have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Among those children who do feel sick, the most common symptoms are fever, cough, or tummy troubles, such as vomiting or diarrhea. 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
- Abdominal pain
- Neck pain
- Bloodshot eyes
- Feeling extra tired
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 children age 5 and up. Research by Pfizer-BioNTech showed that its shot is 100% effective at preventing COVID-19 in 12- to 15-year-olds. Pfizer-BioNTech found similar positive results in their research on kids 5 to 11 years old.
Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are also testing their vaccines to see how they work in younger children. Additionally, Pfizer-BioNTech is in clinical trials exploring the vaccine’s efficacy in children under age 5.
The decision to vaccinate your kids
Are you on the fence about your child getting a COVID-19 shot? Some parents may feel that their children don’t need the vaccine since risk of severe disease is low. 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 (Pfizer and Moderna) vaccines being safe and effective for kids,” she says.
Dr. Bower is encouraging parents to seriously consider getting their children vaccinated against COVID-19. “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 children under age 5. But while you wait, here are three important steps to take:
- Schedule a checkup. Lots of families have skipped regular wellness visits during the pandemic. So before your children head back to school or daycare, make sure they’re healthy from head to toe. You can also use the time to talk about any concerns with your doctor.
- Update their shots. If your child is due for any non-COVID–19 shots, now is the time to catch up.
- 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. 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 CDC, WHO, their local public health department, and our COVID-19 member site.
All Californians ages 5 and older are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
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