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COVID-19 vaccine and kids

Ask the Pediatrician: The COVID-19 vaccine and your kids | Q&A

A doctor talks about safety, side effects, school and — at long last! — hugging grandparents.

The COVID-19 vaccine and kids: Parents, we have come a long way in the past year. There are times when this feels never ending but it is also helpful to call out that we have shown courage, resilience and flexibility as a community and as families. Seriously, we are strong. Go Seattle!

We just saw another huge step in the fight against COVID-19: The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have approved an expanded emergency use authorization of the Pfizer vaccine for children 12 and up. Since we’ve already been vaccinating children 16 to 17 for a few weeks, it’s expected that the shots will be widely available to 12- to 15-year-olds, as vaccine supply allows.

This authorization allows for a younger population to be protected from COVID-19, bringing us closer to a sense of normalcy and entering a new and hopeful phase in the pandemic.

But many of us still have questions. When will all children be vaccinated? How do we know the vaccine is safe? Can we hug grandma?

Here’s more information on what we can expect from this new authorization and what vaccines for children mean for our families:

COVID-19 vaccine eligibility for children

It is exciting to hear that eligibility is now extended to children age 12 to 15 for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. While this is good news, we also have learned that in recent weeks 24% of new COVID-19 cases were among children. This uptick is likely because of new COVID-19 variant strains, which are more contagious.

All of this reinforces what we already know. To get this pandemic under control we need to vaccinate as many people as possible, including children and teens. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that more than 3.8 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 in the U.S., and it is essential for children to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

COVID-19 vaccine and kids: Is it safe?

It is helpful to look at how far we have come in the past 14 months. Science and research has been moving at a tremendous pace in the fight against COVID-19, resulting in three authorized vaccinations that are all considered highly effective and safe for adults. Researchers developed these vaccines based on decades of understanding immune response and how vaccines work. The vaccines went through the exact same development process as any other vaccine — only faster. This was partly possible because development was an international priority, and results could be measured quickly as high numbers of people were getting infected with COVID-19.

Now the studies are extending to children and have shown that the Pfizer vaccine appears to be safe for young adults as well. Right now, the Pfizer vaccine is the only vaccine authorized for children 12 to 17.

Clinical trials for the Pfizer vaccine in adolescents 12 to 15 show immune response was as strong or stronger than for adults. Mild side effects such as a sore arm and fever were similar for adolescents as for adults.

As a pediatrician and mother of two school-age children, I am looking forward to getting my children vaccinated as soon as they are eligible.

How are COVID-19 vaccines studied? How can we be sure they are safe?

Clinical trials are the main tool scientists use to determine if a vaccine is safe and effective and it is how the Pfizer vaccine is studied in children. The vaccine is given to a group of volunteers and their clinical response and side effects are carefully monitored. Currently, there are many clinical trials in progress. When a clinical trial has found that the vaccine is safe and effective, the FDA reviews the data. The emergency use authorization is used to allow vaccination as early as possible while studies are still ongoing; a crucial step to control the pandemic.

Can my child get the single-dose vaccine instead of the two-dose vaccine?

The Pfizer vaccine is currently the only vaccine authorized for use in children ages 12 to 17. This vaccine requires 2 doses that are given a few weeks apart. The first dose primes the immune system, helping it recognize the virus, and the second strengthens the immune response.

Will my child experience side effects?

It’s normal and expected to experience some mild discomfort following a vaccine. It’s a sign that it’s working and creating an immune response in your body. Some patients experience side effects, and some do not.

Your child may feel soreness or experience some swelling in the arm, may also feel tired or have a headache, fever, or chills. These symptoms do not mean your child has COVID-19 — it’s not possible to get COVID-19 from the vaccine. The side effects shouldn’t last more than a day or so, and are generally mild or moderate.

School, hugging, etc.: What’s next?

What about full in-person learning next year?
This is a question that keeps me up at night. As a parent of school-age children, I know I am not alone in wondering what the fall will look like. While there are still a great number of unknowns, the good news is that the more vaccines available, the more students we can expect back in the classroom this fall.

Hugging Grandma is back!
So many of us have distanced from vulnerable and elderly family members in the past 14 months to help keep loved ones safe. Now that people are getting vaccinated, is it safe to have dinner together or even — gasp! — hug? Basically, can unvaccinated kids hug vaccinated grandparents? The great answer is yes!

Kids can hug grandparents, but here are a few things to consider. Remember it takes time for the COVID-19 vaccine to become fully effective. It is important to hold off getting together in person until all vaccine-eligible people have received both shots (Moderna or Pfizer) or one dose (Johnson & Johnson) and then wait two weeks. We also know that the COVID-19 vaccine is extremely effective in preventing life threatening illness and death. People who have had the COVID-19 vaccine may still be able to get a much milder form of the illness.

At this point it makes sense to continue to follow common sense guidelines which include ensuring that people are fully vaccinated, avoid large gatherings, stay home if you are sick or have a known COVID-19 exposure.

Where can I get vaccine appointments?
Kaiser Permanente is scheduling appointments for free vaccinations for ages 12 and older for members and non-members alike; you can find out more at kp.org/covidvaccine. Parents/guardians for those under 18 years old who are not members, please call 1-800-352-3610 to schedule an appointment.

The state of Washington also has an exhaustive online listing of vaccine sites, searchable by ZIP code and vaccine type.

This story was originally published on May 19, 2021.

More from Kaiser Permanente in Seattle’s Child:

Kids and heat: Keeping them healthy and hydrated

Balancing independence, safety and COVID with your young teen

About the Author

Susanna Block

Dr. Susanna Block, MD, MPH, is a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Seattle and lives with her family in Queen Anne.