Giving COVID-19 vaccine to kids ‘will help us get the pandemic under control,’ Utah pediatrician says

Utah kids ages 5 to 11 could start getting the vaccine as soon as Nov. 8, after FDA panel’s advisory ruling Tuesday.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Salt Lake Tribune) A vial of the Pfizer version of the COVID-19 vaccine, given out July 21, 2021 at a walk-in vaccination clinic at the South Davis Senior Activity Center. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel endorsed the use of Pfizer's vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 in a meeting on Oct. 26, 2021.

Thousands of Utah children between the ages of 5 and 11 could start getting the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as Nov. 8, a leading pediatrician said Tuesday — after a federal advisory board approved such a vaccine for young kids.

“If we can get a substantial portion of kids in this age group vaccinated, it will help us get the pandemic under control,” said Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Utah Health and director of hospital epidemiology at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital.

Pavia noted that “the most important thing is the benefit for children themselves. The next most important thing is the benefits for families by having children protected — because what we worry about a lot is transmitting to that mother with cancer, or that grandparent on an immunosuppressive.”

A Food and Drug Administration advisory committee Tuesday endorsed kid-size doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech version of the COVID-19 vaccine for children between 5 and 11 years old. The panel voted unanimously, with one member abstaining, that the vaccine’s benefits for preventing COVID-19 in that age group outweigh any potential risks — including a heart-related side effect that’s been very rare in teens and young adults despite their use of a much higher shot dose.

The FDA is is not bound by the panel’s advice, but is expected to make its own decision within days.

If the FDA authorizes the kid-size doses, there’s still another step: Next week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will have to decide whether to recommend the shots and which youngsters should get them.

“If you were to live in a state where 80% of the people are vaccinated, where masks are used 100% in all the schools, your child might be at a relatively modest risk of getting COVID, and watching and waiting might be a reasonable strategy,” Pavia said. “Unfortunately, we don’t live there.”

In Utah, according to UDOH statistics, 67.3% of eligible Utahns, 12 years old or older, are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — and mask requirements in schools have been met with protests against them and even legislation to prohibit a statewide mandate.

“If I had a child who lived in Utah in this age group who’d never been infected with COVID before, I would get them vaccinated the very first day I could,” he said.

Pavia decried the myth “that is absolutely, 100% false” that children aren’t severely affected by COVID-19. “They are much less likely than older adults to die or be hospitalized, but they’re pretty heavily affected,” Pavia said, noting that some 600 children in Utah have been hospitalized for COVID-19 in 2021.

[Read more: ‘It’s real’: Utah doctors and nurses talk about treating kids sick and dying from COVID-19]

“Deaths, thankfully, are relatively rare,” Pavia said, noting that nationally, about 720 kids have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began. (In Utah, only one child between 1 and 14 has died from COVID-19: A Salt Lake County boy who died in March 2021.)

There are some 365,000 Utah children ages 5 to 11 who will be eligible for the vaccine — one of the largest new eligibility groups the state has seen since the vaccine first became available, the Utah Department of Health said in a statement Tuesday.

Pavia said he expects the CDC’s advisory panel to make its recommendations on Nov. 3, and CDC director Rochelle Walensky to give her approval shortly after that. So it’s likely, Pavia said, that Utah kids could get shots in arms as soon as Nov. 8.

Health care providers should be ready. UDOH announced it has ordered 109,000 pediatric Pfizer doses, which will be shipped to providers — local health departments, mass vaccination sites, pharmacies and doctor’s offices (including pediatricians) — statewide starting this Friday, the department said. More doses will be available to order on a weekly basis starting in early November.

The state health department is warning providers to be patient, and not deliver the doses until the CDC’s final recommendation is announced.

The kids’ doses are 10 micrograms each, compared to the 30 micrograms given for an adult dose of the Pfizer vaccine. Pfizer will distribute the children’s version in vials with an orange cap, to distinguish them from the adult version, which has a purple cap.

The full-strength Pfizer vaccine has been given full FDA approval for adults, and has been available under emergency-use rules for children 12 and up. The vaccine for younger children also would be covered under those emergency rules.

Moderna Inc. announced Monday it had “positive interim data” of “a robust neutralizing antibody response” in its trials for its vaccine in children 6 to 11. The company said it would be submitting its data to the FDA and regulators in other countries soon.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.