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Reporter debrief: Looking at the COVID-19 vaccine for kids with 'But Why'

A Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine goes into the arm of 13-year-old Justin Bishop in Freeport, New York in May 2021. A dose of the Pfizer vaccine for children between the ages of five and 11 could be approved by the CDC within the week.
Mary Altaffer
Associated Press
A Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine goes into the arm of 13-year-old Justin Bishop in Freeport, New York in May 2021. A dose of the Pfizer vaccine for children between the ages of five and 11 could be approved by the CDC within the week.

Vermont is among the most vaccinated states in the country. But like the rest of the world, adults — and kids — in Vermont are eager for the authorization of a vaccine for kids under the age of 12. That vaccine took a significant step forward last week, and could be rolling out in Vermont within days.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Jane Lindholm, who’s been covering the state's response to COVID-19 from the start of the pandemic. She’s also the host and executive producer of But Why: A Podcast for Curious Kids, which just released an episode to answer kids’ questions about COVID vaccines. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: A vaccine for younger kids took a significant step closer to reality on Friday, when the Food and Drug Administration authorized a lower-dose version of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children between the ages of 5 and 11.

The FDA made its decision on the recommendation of an advisory panel of independent scientists, but there are still a few steps in the process before the vaccine is in the hands of pediatricians and pharmacies and ready to go into kids’ arms.

With Friday's approval by the FDA, what comes next?

So, what happens next is, the FDA decides whether they're going to take that recommendation, and give an emergency use authorization to this vaccine for this age group.

That's, though, not the final step. Then the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] weighs in — so, there is a CDC advisory panel vote, and then a CDC recommendation from CDC Director Rochelle Walensky — and then after that, states will know what the recommendation is, for which age groups, what the plan is, and then they can move forward very quickly, once though all of those steps have taken place.

More from VPR: Tired. Exhausted. Frustrated. With kids under 12 unable to get a COVID shot, parents feel the strain

Assuming all of that happens, how does the vaccine for younger kids differ from the adult version of the Pfizer vaccine?

It's the same medicine, but it is a different dose. So, in the children aged 5 to 11, the dose will be 10 micrograms.

Now, if you're an adult, and you got the [Pfizer] vaccine, you got 30 micrograms. So, a 10 microgram dose, one-third of the dose for children aged 5 to 11. And, if a vaccine for even younger children is recommended and authorized, it would be 3 micrograms for children under the age of 5.

But right now, we're talking about a one-third dose for kids aged 5 to 11, of the Pfizer- BioNTech vaccine.

You've really been following this news in Vermont so closely, Jane — I want to give a shout out here to your tweets during the governor's weekly media briefings — but as the host of But Why, you've also just released this episode about vaccines.

I understand that you spoke to some kids in the Pfizer trial for these vaccines. What did you learn by talking to those kids, the parents and the doctors in reporting this episode?

Yeah, that's right. We did, and it was great. We talked with the Chavez family in California. And, actually, my colleague Melody Bodette conducted that interview.

We talked with these two young kids, obviously, both under the age of 12, Sofia and Nico, who were both enrolled in the trial. And they told us why they wanted to do it: they wanted to be able to get out, and see their friends more, and be more protected.

Nico was also hoping someone will give him tickets to Universal Studios. So, you know, any of you listening who have the ability to do that, Nico would really like that.

And their mom is actually in the health care profession as well, and she said she really wanted to make sure that her kids could be protected early. She believed in the safety of this vaccine, and its efficacy in adults, and wanted to make sure that they could move forward [and] to make sure that kids can get this vaccine that can help protect them from the virus.

More from But Why?: Why is it a shot? Kids’ questions about COVID vaccines

“So, they gave us like these phones that have these study things and at night they, like, it asks you, like, question, like, did they get, like, a bump where, like, they got the shot. And you can say yes or no.”
- Sofia, participant in the Pfizer-BioNTech pediatric vaccine trial

“After each injection, it was seven days of really specific symptom questions. And then, in between, for the two weeks, it was just a weekly ‘Do you have any symptoms of COVID, yes/no?’ But we're going to be submitting that data weekly for two years.”
- Renee, mother of Sofia and Nico, participants in the pediatric vaccine trial

So Mitch, that's the other part of this. This is not a trial where the kids get the vaccine, or a placebo, and then they're done. This is — like most trials — something that will go on for a long time. Two years is how long they're going to be submitting data for.

Now, in the cases of kids, as it was true for adults, they will be unblinded. Meaning, they'll be able to find out whether they got the placebo, or the vaccine, and if they got the placebo in the trial, they will be able to get the vaccine dose with their age cohort as it becomes available. But they will still be monitored, and this is still an ongoing scientific look at what this vaccine does.

That's kind of the macro picture, but assuming the vaccine is approved for kids, what can we expect the rollout to look like here in Vermont?

We haven't heard all the details yet, so I'm curious about how the state will decide to roll it out, given the fact that we won't have enough doses right at the beginning to cover all of the estimated 40,000 kids in Vermont that are between the ages of 5 and 11. I think the governor said earlier, we'd have between 10,000 or 15,000 doses initially.

It remains to be seen how quickly parents will get their kids vaccinated. Medical officials and state officials obviously are hoping it will be very quickly. But one thing the state is doing is trying to make sure that physician's offices, doctor's offices, have these doses. So, if you as a parent want to go talk to somebody about this vaccine before you give it to your child, you can go to your kid’s pediatrician. So, a lot of doctors offices are making sure they have the appropriate freezers, that they are ready to go, that they are talking to their patients and families about this, in the hopes that people will be able to access the vaccine where and how they'd like to for their kids.

More from VPR: As COVID cases remain high, a racial justice group is calling for strict mitigation measures in Vermont

So Mitch, you know, we're still waiting on the federal government to act and those CDC recommendations and guidelines, which would be the final step. But the word that we've heard so far is that, by the end of the week, perhaps, we could be seeing the vaccine available and going into kids’ arms here in Vermont.

And Jane, just for a little sneak preview, what else is in the episode?

You know, kids are curious about the COVID vaccine. They hear the same things that we adults do. You know, if you have backseat listeners, they're picking up on this. So they're very curious about this COVID vaccine.

But they're also wondering about vaccines in general, and specifically, Mitch: why do we have to get shots!? Why can't we just drink this vaccine? And why do shots have to hurt?!

So, in addition to the guests I've already told you about, we also have some answers from Dr. Mark Levine, the health commissioner for the state of Vermont.

I'm glad they asked that question because I had the same one, frankly.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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