5 things Utah parents should know about COVID-19 vaccines for young children

Utah pediatric infectious diseases expert Dr. Andrew Pavia explains the benefits of vaccinating children under 5 against COVID-19.

A year-and-a-half after the first COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Utah, parents may finally get the chance to inoculate their children who are 5 years or younger as early as next week.

That’s because the Food and Drug Administration on Friday signed off on the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 6 months and up. Now all that’s needed to green-light the shipment of kid-sized doses is final approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is really a big step,” Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah and director of epidemiology at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital, said in a community briefing Friday.

“We’ve had several months now in which there’s been a lot of disease out there,” Pavia said, “and younger children have not had any vaccine availability to provide them protection.”

Here are five things you should know about getting younger children vaccinated against COVID-19.

1. There will be several places to get your child vaccinated.

The Utah Department of Health is emphasizing that parents get children vaccinated through pediatricians and family practitioners, Pavia said, “so that parents can get their kids vaccinated places where they’re used to getting vaccinated.”

But vaccines for those under 5 also will be available at certain public health sites and select pharmacies, Pavia said.

In Salt Lake County, parents can already begin scheduling free, preemptive COVID-19 vaccine appointments for young kids, with the first slots slated for Tuesday, pending CDC approval.

2. The approved vaccines differ in a couple key ways.

The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines will be administered a little differently. The Moderna inoculation consists of two doses and will be offered to children ages 6 months through 5 years, while the Pfizer vaccine will be administered in three doses to children ages 6 months through 4 years.

The difference is due to the size of each company’s dose. Pavia explained that Moderna opted to use a quarter of the adult-sized dose in its vaccine for children, whereas Pfizer went with one-tenth of an adult-sized dose, which only produced a strong antibody response after three shots.

However, Pavia said that a series of three doses has proven to deliver the best results and that by late summer, Moderna will likely recommend a third shot as well.

3. Children have contracted serious cases of COVID-19.

The omicron variant hit children hard.

Since March 2020, there have been more than 570,000 cases of COVID-19 reported to the CDC in children under the age of 1, and nearly two million cases in 1-4 year olds, Pavia said.

Cases spiked dramatically at the beginning of 2022, when the omicron variant emerged, and during that time, 15% of emergency room visits by children at surveilled programs were due to COVID-19.

“This represented several million emergency department visits,” Pavia said. He also noted “a huge upturn” of COVID-19 hospitalizations last winter.

“Once omicron hit, it was actually kids 6 months to 4 years old who had the highest hospitalization rates,” he said. “A lot of that was because we were now getting vaccine(s) into the arms of our children who were 5 years of age or older.”

4. Vaccines do not offer complete protection, but prevent serious disease.

Vaccines don’t completely shield you from getting infected, Pavia said.

“I can attest to that; I’ve gotten infected myself,” he said. “But they do provide very good protection against more severe disease.”

He said that prior to the approval of recommended vaccines, COVID-19 averaged more deaths per year in the U.S. than hepatitis A from 1990-1995 and meningococcal disease from 2000-2004, in specific demographics that had not been vaccinated for each disease.

“We vaccinate our kids to protect against much smaller risks than the risk that COVID poses,” Pavia said.

5. Potential side effects

Pavia said COVID-19 vaccination can cause soreness at the injection point, and sometimes, redness is common. Swelling of lymph nodes is another side effect, though it’s rare.

The two vaccines also cause varying rates of fever, with 7-8% of children experiencing fever after the second dose of Pfizer, compared to around 15% of children who receive Moderna’s vaccine, which is likely due to the higher dose, Pavia said.

He also noted that side effects are often “a little bit more bothersome after the second dose than the first.”

For more information, and vaccine availability, visit vaccines.gov.