According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children now make up about 22% of new COVID-19 cases. At the same time last year, kids made up about 3% of all cases. This uptick is due to the more contagious COVID-19 variant strains combined with the reopening of the country.
“Kids are now having more interactions than they were having during lockdown, and the predominant strains in our country are more contagious than the early variants of COVID-19,” says pediatric infectious disease specialist Latania Logan, MD, MSPH.
However, this trend may start to decline now that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have authorized the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 12 and older. Here, Logan shares five important things to know about children getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
1. The vaccine is safe and effective for kids.
The Pfizer clinical trial found that the vaccine demonstrated 100% efficacy in preventing COVID-19 infection in kids 12 to 15. The trial included about 2,300 people in this age group in the U.S. None of the participants who received the vaccine developed COVID-19.
Similar to the results of the clinical trials for people 16 and older, some children in the trial experienced mild to moderate side effects, which included pain at the injection site, headache, fatigue, muscle pain and fever. Side effects were more common after their second shot. Some children in the study did not have any side effects. As with the adult trials, the side effects were temporary, typically lasting one to three days after receiving the vaccine.
Logan also explains that long-term effects are unlikely based on how the vaccine works. “The mRNA (the technology used in the vaccine) delivers the information, so your body can start making antibodies, and then it degrades,” she says. “There is no way for mRNA to affect your DNA, and it does not go inside your cells where the DNA is located.”
Logan stresses that there is no evidence that the vaccine causes long-term effects like infertility, a common COVID-19 vaccine myth.
“There is absolutely no basis to this myth that the vaccine causes infertility,” Logan says. “This false information has been perpetuated primarily by the anti-vaccine community, and it is completely unfounded. We have also been following pregnant women who have received the vaccine, and they are delivering healthy infants. There have not been any increases in preterm births or miscarriages in these vaccinated people.”
2. COVID-19 can be serious in children.
While children have generally been less likely to develop severe COVID-19, they can still get very sick. Over 400 children have died from COVID-19 in the U.S., and COVID-19 is now one of the top 10 causes of death among children.
“I have seen children who are otherwise healthy come to the hospital with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C, and it can be devastating for families,” says Logan. “We have also seen kids who may have had mild symptoms of COVID-19 go on to develop long-term symptoms, like brain fog. It is heartbreaking to see what these children and their families go through. You do not want that for your child. And this vaccine can help you prevent it.”
Like adults, the kids who have the highest risk for severe COVID-19 are those who have underlying conditions, like heart and lung disease, sickle cell disease, diabetes, obesity and those on immunosuppression. Additionally, Black and Latinx children, like adults, have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and have a higher risk of severe disease.
Still, Logan stresses that she has seen children who do not have any risk factors get seriously ill with COVID-19.
“While we don’t know exactly who will get ill from COVID-19, who will develop MIS-C, who will need to be hospitalized or who will develop long-term symptoms, we do know that the vaccine will protect children from all of those possibilities,” Logan says.
3. Trials are underway for kids under 12.
The clinical trials for the COVID-19 vaccines are organized the same way all vaccine trials are. Trials start with the adult age group to make sure it is safe and effective. Once that is established, the manufacturer moves into step-down trials in kids.
“Step-down trials start with kids 12 and older because this group is more physiologically similar to adults,” Logan explains. “The next group will be the ‘littles,’ which are the younger kids, age 5 to 11 and then 2 and up. After that, the trials for kids are conducted in babies who are 6 months and older.”
During step-down trials, researchers look at the dose needed. While kids 12 and older will receive the same dose as those 16 and older, the younger age groups may be different.
“When thinking about the littles, they may not need the same dose as adults, so that's a main point they’ll be looking at in those step-down trials,” says Logan. “They want to find the safest and most appropriate dose that gets the same antibody response and is associated with the least amount of side effects. Overall, though, kids do well with vaccines, and often adults may have more side effects than kids.”
4. Vaccinating kids will help us move out of the pandemic.
“We will see the world get even closer to returning to normal once we get the kids vaccinated because we’ll be closer to reaching the level of herd immunity that we need,” Logan says. “And we’ll be able to see more kids get back into their normal activities this summer like camps, vacations and sleepovers. Additionally, it can help kids get back to full-time, in-person school in the fall. As more kids get vaccinated, more things will be possible for all of us.”
In the meantime, it is important to continue taking safety precautions. “We still need to be mindful that we have not reached herd immunity yet,” Logan says. “You still want to avoid crowded spaces, wear your mask and practice social distancing as more activities open up for kids and families.”
5. The vaccine is the best way to protect kids.
While many adults were eager to get the vaccine themselves, they may be hesitating when it comes to getting their kids vaccinated. But given the clear data about the vaccine’s effectiveness and safety — and the clear data about the seriousness of COVID-19 — the vaccine is the best way to protect your kids, according to Logan.
“I get it: You want to do what’s best for your child. I can tell you this is what’s best for your child,” she says. “Speaking as a parent, I will take my 7- and 10-year-old kids to get vaccinated as soon as the vaccine is approved by the CDC advisory committee for their age group. I trust these vaccines, and I feel that it is important to protect my kids. The benefit is so great that there is no good reason not to get our kids protected.”