COVID-19 vaccines in kids: What parents should know

A Northwestern Medicine pediatrician answers questions on why vaccines in children could be key to a return to pre-pandemic life

A local pediatrician with Northwestern Medicine said fully vaccinating youth is key to ensuring a level of herd immunity is reached, which in turn will enable a faster return to pre-pandemic lifestyles.

On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in children as young as 12. Previously, the vaccine only has been available for those 16 and older, while the other two vaccine distributors whose vaccines are authorized for use in the U.S., Johnson & Johnson and Moderna, limit vaccine use to those 18 and older. The 12-and-older vaccine now awaits further approval during a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, expected to occur Wednesday, said Lisa Gonzalez, public health administrator with the DeKalb County Health Department.

That means, pending final approval, local health officials could begin vaccinating those 12 and older as early as Thursday, when a Pfizer vaccine clinic will be offered at Northern Illinois University’s Convocation Center. The clinic already was announced earlier this week, and with expanded eligibility, it’s likely the 804 Pfizer doses in the DeKalb County Health Department’s inventory will go quickly, Gonzalez said.

“Given the new information of authorization for a new population, if the clinic fills on Thursday, there may not be any walk-ins available for the Thursday Pfizer clinics,” Gonzalez said. “Please continue to check our Facebook page for any updates to the Thursday Pfizer clinic.”

Moving forward, county health department, which does not receive Pfizer vaccine as often or as the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccine, will continue to request the Pfizer vaccine and offer clinics specifically for this population including clinics at the Convocation Center, local health officials said.

What parents should know: A Q&A with Northwestern Medicine pediatrician

Dr. Mayuri Morker, a local pediatrician at RMG Primary Care at 8150 Gateway Drive in Sycamore, and at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital’s pediatric nursery said her patients and their parents have already been expressing a lot of interest in the vaccine.

“We have a discussion on a daily basis when I have patients over 16,” Morker said. “And then I’ve had school-age parents who are definitely interested in it and want their child to be able to return to school without restrictions because they’re seeing the impact these restrictions have had on their development. So anything they can do to help get back to normal, they’re interested in.”

She said Northwestern Medicine currently is not equipped to act as a clinic-provider for the Pfizer vaccine for those 12 and older, since the vaccine requires significant cold storage.

“When the state passes out these vaccines they have these vaccination sites that are able to accommodate that. There is talk that we may have through our convenient immediate care a drive-thru process,” Morker said. “But right now they’re just saying anywhere you can get vaccinated you should.”

Morker said she realizes the idea of a mandatory vaccine for school-age children to return to full-time school is controversial. However, many schools already require a number of immunizations within the first five years of a child’s life.

“Kindergarten is one of our first entry to school points, so K-vaccines are an accumulation of vaccines that you’ve gotten in first 5 years of your life. They start at two months, you get your last booster sets at Kindergarten.”

Early childhood vaccinations include those for illnesses such as diphtheria, tetanus, polio, hepatitis b, pneumococcal vaccine, influenza, measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox. Those are required for school entry, Morker said. Sixth graders then need a meningitis and another tetanus shot, she said, and senior year of high school a second meningitis is required.

“Those are the required vaccines into the school system and we have been giving these for years and years and know the efficacy for it, safety of it,” Morker said. “Unfortunately as we see the anti-vaxxer population growing, so having that belief in science, confidence in how the vaccines work and how effective they are really helps the community stay safe. It protects the population that’s vulnerable. There are some adults who can’t get vaccinated. So taking it lightly is not the approach, realizing how the vaccines work and the important purpose it serves and keeping the community is the message.”

Daily Chronicle: What does opening up the COVID-19 vaccine to a younger age group mean for the pandemic’s trajectory?

Mayuri Morker: “Just being able to vaccinate more of the population is the biggest advantage. Everyone keeps talking about herd immunity, upwards of 85% of the population needs to be vaccinated for us to get to some sort of normalcy that we were used to before. Getting to that in the adult population which is higher risk of complications is obviously a big achievement. The pediatric population also makes up a great amount of our population, and so to be able to start vaccinated some components of that, the more we can vaccinate, the better can get to those normal times.”

DC: What would you say to a parent or teenager who’s wary about getting the vaccine?

MM: “We’ve been giving them since December, we have that data piling up telling us the safety of the vaccine and effectiveness of the vaccine. The take home point is going to reputable sources for your information and getting that information accurately so you can make the decision. Each parent, those are your children and you make what you think is the best decision for them. But also in young teenage population, they also understand that it’s about their body, so involving them in that decision is also important, socialization is important to them, so we can see they want to get two doses.”

DC: Are there any components to this COVID-19 vaccine for those 12 and older which are different than the vaccine currently being offered to adults?

MM: “They will give the same vaccine, they [clinical trial researchers] just had to make sure the same dose would be effective, that this younger population wouldn’t have more severe or different side effects. Most that we give are the same throughout [the age group]. Even with the flu vaccine they used to have a baby dose they used to call it, it was smaller for younger kids, and in the last couple years that has gone away and everyone gets the same dose. The components and the actual allergens inside remain the same.”

DC: What are some challenges, if any, you foresee in getting vaccinations into the arms of our younger population?

MM: “The biggest thing is that communication, availability of information. No one is denying that [side effects] won’t happen. It’s a vaccine, it’s supposed to help your body build immunity so you will see some minimal side effects. When you put it into the pediatric or young teenage population, the similar concept is that we’re hoping we can convey the safety of the vaccine and also seeing the effectiveness of the it. It’s preventing you from getting to that part where you need to be hospitalized and getting you to that low transmissibility after you’re fully vaccinated so you’re not passing it to somebody who either couldn’t get vaccinated, or is a higher risk person in your life. So I think having that information available and confidence that we are providing a safe product. There’s data out there. Hundreds of millions of people, adults over 16 have gotten the vaccine, we’ve done studies on the 12 to 15-year age range. Just because it happened so fast [the vaccine was developed] doesn’t mean that steps have been skipped or people overlooking something. That confidence in science is one of the biggest things we can promote.”

DC: In the clinical trials, did children and teenagers report side effects, such as those reported in some adults, after receiving the vaccine? Is it a double dose still for those under 16?

MM: “Yes. It’s pretty similar with arm soreness, fatigue, if you had COVID-19 before, you may have more symptoms.”

DC: Now that the vaccine has been available in adults for months, are you seeing COVID-19 community spread in young people who haven’t yet been able to get the vaccine?

MM: “Yes. the good thing is we are not seeing patients being admitted to the ICU or needing much hospitalization, which has been the case for us [pediatric population] throughout the pandemic. These kids are not severely ill but most of them are needing clearance for school or group settings, so flu like symptoms needing clearance. In testing done, we’ve seen a higher number of positives in our pediatric population. So we want to be assured that when they’re in a group setting they’re doing everything. It’s always been a concern, a child taking [the virus] home to somebody who can be at higher risk, a parent, grandparent, teacher, where severe illness occur in those adults. So we are seeing the schools are being vigilant about anybody that has any symptoms that they need clearance. Hopefully that’s what the vaccine will decrease for us, not having to miss school or need a COVID-19 test for every symptom without constantly being pulled out and needing to quarantine.

“For teenage sports and other group events, this will be big things because those will be controlled, if vaccination rates are high we can more confidently move forward.”

DC: Do you believe the COVID-19 vaccine should be required for school-age children?

MM: “Yeah I think the mandatory part is always under discussion and a controversial subject. Speaking for myself, anything that we know can help cut down transmission and severity of symptoms can be beneficial to us returning to normal and I think this vaccine can provide that. We can get back to school as we know it, activities, without limitations of 3 or 6 feet apart, wearing masks. I think for us to start incorporating that back, we need the vaccine.”

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke is the editor of the Daily Chronicle, part of Shaw Media and DeKalb County's only daily newspaper devoted to local news, crime and courts, government, business, sports and community coverage. Kelsey also covers breaking news for Shaw Media Local News Network.