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With More Kids Eligible for Vaccines, is the Pandemic in a New Phase?

With the FDA authorization last week, 28 million more children are eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Penn Nursing’s Melanie Kornides, ScD, and other experts from Penn Medicine, share their thoughts about what to expect in the weeks and months to come.

Many parents celebrated the news last week when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11, a decision that was endorsed today by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advisory group and Director Rochelle Walensky. This sets the stage for a vaccine rollout to that age group to start imminently.

While most children don’t get severely sick with COVID-19 when infected, schoolchildren have had a significant role to play in viral transmission, and the associated risks have driven school closures and other social disruptions during the last year and a half. Getting this group—a demographic that includes 28 million people in the United States—vaccinated could signal a new phase of the pandemic.

But how quickly will parents get their children vaccinated, and will this alter the trajectory of the pandemic? Penn Today spoke with experts in epidemiology, vaccine acceptance and misinformation, and pediatric medicine about what this authorization holds for the weeks and months ahead.

Uncertain Uptake

During the last 20 months, it’s become clear that COVID-19 poses the greatest threat to older adults and those with conditions that impair the immune system. “But kids are still at risk,” says Kornides, whose scholarship focuses on vaccine misinformation. “They are at risk not only for asymptomatic or mild infection, but we have also seen kids being hospitalized, and we have even seen some kids die. Preventing that is one big reason why getting the vaccine to this group is so important.”

Communicating that message to parents is the role of public health officials and pediatricians, Kornides says, and they have a daunting task ahead. According to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, only about a third of parents are eager to get their 5- to 11-year-olds vaccinated. Roughly another third are strongly hesitant, with the remainder taking a “wait-and-see” approach.

Kornides says having such a large group on the fence at this early stage is unsurprising.

“Parents are always a little more hesitant with their children when it comes to vaccines,” she says. “We’ve seen this with the HPV vaccine, with the varicella vaccine. I’m a parent; I’m protective; I understand. It’s going to take a lot more reassurance from pediatricians and social support from people in their communities—from other parents, from school—that, yes, this is safe, this has been tested.”

This is an excerpt from a longer news release that originally appeared in Penn Today. It was written by Katherine Unger Baillie, senior science news officer in University Communications.