Cue the collective sigh of relief from many parents across the country. While the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine has been available for children ages 12 and up since mid-September, as of now 28 million even younger school-age children between the ages of 5 and 11 are eligible to receive it.
As an emergency medicine physician and a parent, that reassures me. As a member of the global community, it gives me hope we’ll soon return to some level of normalcy. I acknowledge the personal decision of some parents who don’t want their kids to be vaccinated. Yet as someone whose own children were part of the vaccine’s clinical trials, I feel compelled to share the story of why my wife and I felt confident making that decision with them, and what vaccinating younger children will mean for the fate of the pandemic.
Children are not invulnerable to Covid-19
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the CDC reports that more than 2 million children between the ages 5 and 11 have contracted Covid-19 and, as I write this, more than 8,600 have been hospitalized and 190 have died.
As an emergency physician, I’m haunted by the faces I’m able to put to those numbers. Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve had too many children come into my emergency department struggling to breathe. The terrified looks on their parents’ faces as they’re placed on a ventilator or whisked away to the ICU at the local children’s specialty hospital have been heartbreaking.
In the earlier stages of the pandemic, it may have appeared that Covid-19 posed less of a risk to children than to adults. We have since learned that the illness can be devastating to children. Yet some still hold on to a false narrative that children are safe from the coronavirus.
But they aren’t, not until the country, and the world, get this virus under control. And that won’t happen until the overwhelming majority of the population — including children — is vaccinated.
mRNA vaccines are safe
The science behind mRNA is not new. This type of vaccine has been studied for decades and investigated for the treatment or prevention of other diseases, including cancer, rabies, influenza, and Zika. They don’t change or alter one’s DNA in any way. And they are being held to the same rigorous safety and effectiveness standards as other types of vaccines (14 of which most kids get between the ages of 7 to 18).
That’s why my wife, who is also an emergency physician, and I didn’t hesitate when given the chance to enroll our children into a Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine trial. Having participated in clinical trials ourselves, my wife and I were entirely confident that the trials posed little to no risk to our children.
Clinical trials of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine showed it to be 97.1% effective at preventing laboratory-confirmed Covid-19 infection in adolescents 12 to 15 years old. The immune response in this age group was at least as strong as, or stronger than, the immune response in people 16 to 25 years old. The clear benefits of the vaccine overwhelmingly outweigh the minimal risks associated with it.
Our kids want this pandemic to end, too
My wife and I didn’t make the decision to enroll our kids in the clinical trials alone. After watching their parents on the frontlines of the pandemic, our children were eager to contribute in some way. They saw participation in the clinical trials for the vaccine as their opportunity to help end this thing — for their own sake, their parents’ sake, and for the sake of others.
Our children, along with countless others across the country, have missed out on precious moments in their lives, from hanging out with friends to birthday parties, after-school activities, and other friendship-defining experiences. They’ve also missed out on school, and the education and critical services that schools provide. From Aug. 1 to Sept. 17, 2021, 1,800 schools experienced closure due to the pandemic, affecting nearly 1 million students and 60,000 teachers in 44 states.
I know firsthand that these closures, and even the mere possibility of closure, are taking a toll on kids, parents, school systems, and larger communities. I want my kids to continue to learn in-person. And I want my son to be able to go to prom and my daughter to be able to perform again in her musical theater shows. I want to relax back into my old rhythms without wondering whether my kids will suddenly get pulled out of theirs again. I want me and my family and all Americans to carry on with good health without this weight on our shoulders.
Vaccination is how we make those daydreams a reality.
Vaccinating kids is necessary in order to regain normalcy
This pandemic is far from over. Vaccinating more kids against Covid-19 (and more adults) will decrease the overall disease burden across society and get us closer to herd immunity.
Unvaccinated school-aged children have accounted for a significant portion of new Covid-19 cases over the last few months, as they’re capable of transmitting the virus to others. Getting these 28 million children safely vaccinated will not only save their lives, but also save the lives of vulnerable members of their communities.
The FDA’s decision to expand vaccine eligibility to this younger age group has the power to influence the trajectory of the pandemic. Now it’s up to parents and kids to do their parts and get vaccinated.
Shaun Carstairs is an emergency physician; associate medical director at 98point6, an on-demand digital primary care service; a medical toxicologist at Scripps Health in the San Diego metropolitan area; and professor of military and emergency medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.