Two days after Kate Hurwitz’s oldest son turned 12, he was vaccinated against COVID-19. And she said upon approval of the vaccine for younger age groups, she’d be rushing to get her 10-year-old and 6-year-old children vaccinated, too.
“It is important that kids can be kids, and vaccines are the fastest way for them to go back to normal,” says Hurwitz, a Montgomery County resident.
Fortunately for Hurwitz, that day has now arrived.
On Sept. 20, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that their vaccine was safe and effective for children ages 5 to 11. And on Sept. 28, the companies submitted their data to the Food and Drug Administration for initial review, indicating that they would soon likely seek emergency use authorization for the pediatric dose of their vaccine.
Although the Wall Street Journal reported that Pfizer might not finish its application until mid-October, the FDA reached its decision about approval on Wednesday, Nov.3.
Children ages 5 to 11 were approved to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Children’s National Hospital gave its first round of that newly-approved vaccine to children in the D.C. region that very same day.
Hurwitz holds a master’s degree in public health and has a background in school health policy. Although she is no longer professionally active in the public health community, she is resolute in her support for it.
“I believe in science,” she says.
Over the course of the pandemic, Hurwitz saw the toll that the emotional trauma of extended isolation was having on her children. Now that there is a tool—a vaccine—to expedite the end to this isolation, she is fully supportive of ongoing vaccination efforts for young children.
Kids Are Key to Controlling the Pandemic
Approximately 28 million children ages 5 to 11 in the United States are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, a group far greater in size than the 17 million ages 12 to 15 who became eligible in May. While most kids face a much lower risk of severe illness, inoculating them is an important tool in controlling the pandemic. Children made up more than a quarter of new cases for the week ending Sept. 23, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported.
Yet inoculations have lagged among older children; only about 43% of U.S. children ages 12 to 15 had been fully vaccinated before Nov.3, compared with 66% of adults, according to federal data.
So far, the Pfizer vaccine is the only one available to Americans younger than 18. In June, Moderna filed for authorization of its vaccine for adolescents ages 12 to 17. In July, Johnson & Johnson announced plans to begin studying its single-dose vaccine for that age group this fall.
Parents are slowly becoming more comfortable with the idea of their children getting vaccinated. In mid-September, around when schools reopened and hospitalizations and deaths soared due to the highly contagious delta variant, the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a nationally representative survey. Thirty-four percent of parents interviewed say they would have their children ages 5 to 11 vaccinated as soon as possible, up from 26% in July.
That’s a relief for Rockville resident Jacqueline Renfrow, whose three children are younger than 12. She told Washington FAMILY prior to Nov. 3 that the vaccine could not come quickly enough.
“I am at the point where my kids’ mental well-being has to take priority,” she says. “Watching them over the course of almost two years—they were not themselves—it was hard to watch.”
The mental and emotional toll isolation was taking on her children eventually reached a tipping point. Renfrow sends her kids to after-school activities—in-person and masked-up.
“I just cannot worry every minute about them, so I throw a mask on them and take the proper precautions,” she says. “They cannot stay inside forever.”
What Do Parents Think About the Vaccines?
Ilya Burdman, who works in cybersecurity, recalls how his parents suffered from COVID-19 during the summer of 2020, before the vaccine was available.
“They had to go through two weeks of pretty much not being able to get up. They had difficulty breathing, and I don’t want that experience for my children,” he says. “It’s something I would try to prevent as much as possible.
“The vaccine is very important to have,” he adds. “It’s extremely safe, and I think COVID will not be going away anytime soon.”
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been linked in rare cases, particularly among young men, to myocarditis, a condition that causes an inflammation of the heart muscle. However, concern about this side effect could be reduced by the lower doses that children will receive of the Pfizer vaccine. In Pfizer’s trials, the smaller doses produced similar antibody responses to those seen in a study of 16- to 25-year-old individuals who received full doses.
Some parents worry about the relatively small size of the trials and about a lack of long-term data on the safety of the shots. In general, parents tend to be skeptical of new vaccines. For example, while the varicella vaccine, which protects against chicken pox, was highly effective and showed few side effects, parents were hesitant to adopt it once the FDA approved it in 1995, with only one-third of eligible adolescents fully immunized by 2008.
Sharone Lerner Cheskis says her 13-year-old son, then 12, was among the first to get the vaccine when it was approved for his age group.
“He was bouncing off the walls excited,” she says. “It’s really made us feel more comfortable. He’s around a lot of other kids, so it’s important for us that he has that layer of protection.
“For our younger son,” who’s 9, “we’re going to do the exact same thing,” she adds. “Both my boys play sports. They’re in public school—we’re just around a lot of people.”
Cheskis is a speech-language pathologist at Prince George’s County Public Schools. She says that the pandemic has been hard for many of the kids that she sees since it has prevented them from talking with people outside of their families.
“There’s been a certain amount of drop in skill,” she says, adding that the vaccine would help “kids to get back to closer to where they were” before COVID-19.
Lucy Leibowitz, a pediatric psychologist, says it is “too soon” to say how the pandemic overall will impact children in the long term, as “we are still very much in it.”
She plans to vaccinate her 7-year-old child as soon as she can, which would bring “peace of mind” when visiting family. However, her 4-year-old child would remain ineligible.
“It would probably be similar to how things were when my husband and I got vaccinated,” she says. “It’s not drastically going to change what we’re doing.”
However, Leibowitz says, changing public health guidelines and conditions can be confusing for kids.
“I took off my mask while talking to one of my kiddo’s friend’s parents at an outdoor playdate, and my 7-year-old said, ‘Mom, put your mask back on,’” she says, “I explained, ‘We are both vaccinated. We are outside, and I made the determination that this is safe.’”
As the pandemic ebbs and flows and as vaccines and more information become available, Leibowitz advises parents to be open with their children about their decisions about participating in certain activities.
“Rather than just saying, ‘You have to do this,’” she says, “explain the reasons why you do this in kid-appropriate language.”
Ben Kahn contributed to this article. This story originally appeared in the Washington Jewish Week.