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UVM Health Network pediatrician on getting young kids vaccinated following federal approval

A man holds a syringe in front of several documents.
Kevin Trevellyan
A medical student prepares to vaccinate someone at a Vermont Department of Health vaccination clinic at the Berlin Mall on Jan. 14, 2022.

COVID-19 vaccines will soon be available to younger children in Vermont for the first time.

On Saturday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for children 6 months to 5 years old. Soon after, the state Health Department announced providers would begin distributing those vaccines in Vermont this week.

To discuss the new authorization for young kids, VPR's Grace Benninghoff spoke with UVM Health Network pediatrician Rebecca Bell, who's also an associate professor with the UVM Larner College of Medicine. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Grace Benninghoff: To start, what does this approval mean for parents who have been really careful with who their kids are spending time with throughout the pandemic — the parents who maybe have been avoiding family and friends to prevent their children from being exposed to the virus without being vaccinated?

A woman smiles for the camera.
Kristy Dooley
UVM Health Network
Dr. Rebecca Bell

Dr. Rebecca Bell: This is just a long-awaited moment for families of young children. I am one of them. I have a child who's been too young to be vaccinated throughout the pandemic. It's been long awaited by pediatricians, by family physicians, by childcare providers.

I mean, we really want young children to have the benefit of protection through vaccination. I think it is a huge relief for those of us who care for children. Because again and again, we see that our adolescents and our school-aged children are really benefiting from vaccination — they are not ending up in the hospital when they get COVID-19.

What factors should parents consider as they're deciding whether to vaccinate their young kids against COVID-19?

Well, I want parents to know that we feel really confident that this is a safe and effective vaccine — and that all children over the age of 6 months should be getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

So the decision made by the advisory groups to the [Food and Drug Administration] and to the CDC were unanimous in their support to vaccinate this age group. And medical organizations who care for children also support this, so the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the state organizations that support those. And that's regardless of underlying health status, and regardless of whether or not the child has had COVID-19 infections.

It seems like a lot of the world has really gone back to normal. A lot of workplaces don't require masks anymore. People are out and about at bars and concerts. How important is it for children to get these vaccines now, from a public health standpoint?

Certainly I think it's helpful from a public health standpoint to vaccinate our entire population as much as as we are able to — but also, even from an individual standpoint. I'm a parent myself. I'm a pediatrician. And these vaccines help individual children.

More from VPR: Why is it a shot? Talking to (little) kids about the COVID vaccine

So some children do get very sick from COVID-19. Unfortunately, I've cared for kids in the hospital who have COVID-19 infections. And what I do see is that the vaccines really protect children from serious complications and serious disease. So for each parent, I think they want to take the public health considerations into account — but also just as a parent making that decision for your own child. The benefits are really there for all children, so we really recommend it.

What does this emergency use authorization tell us about the efficacy of these vaccines? And how safe are they compared to other routine vaccines for young kids?

I'll start with the safety because that's always on every parent's mind. And the safety profile is very good. We see the same types of side effects we see with other childhood immunizations. So soreness of the arm. And some children will have fevers for a day or two, about at the level that you would see in regular childhood immunizations.

We also have a ton of experience with mRNA vaccines. So with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, over 570 million doses have been given in the U.S. alone. And as pediatricians we've been vaccinating adolescents with the Pfizer vaccine for over a year. And we've been vaccinating 5 to 11 year olds since the fall. We feel very comfortable with this vaccine and the clinical trials that were done on the 6 months to 6 year olds — both Moderna and Pfizer had no serious safety concerns.

As far as efficacy, what we were looking for is a dose that would produce the same antibody response in young children as the vaccines do for adults and older children. And they were able to achieve that. So Moderna, with two doses, was able to get the right antibody level production in children. With Pfizer, it's three doses to get that antibody level. And what we know about that antibody response when we looked at adults and older children is that that was very protective against severe disease.

Vermont doesn't have an aggressive vaccine distribution plan in place right now, after they rolled back state-run clinics in March. So how do parents get their younger children vaccinated after the shots become available?

The vaccine is being shipped to the state this week. So your child's medical provider should be getting vaccine in their office at the end of this week or early next week. So the best place to start is to check in with your child's physician and ask when when their child can come in for the vaccine.

There are a few other options across the state. So if you are a [Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children] client, WIC offices are going to be vaccinating young children. Some pharmacies can vaccinate those 3 years old and up. And then the state is running community sites for vaccination of this age group, and they start next Monday. And those clinics and the times they're open can be found on the Health Department website.

Vermont's progress getting young people vaccinated and boosted hasn't kept pace with the state population as a whole. Do you worry whether there will be high uptake for younger kids in Vermont?

Vermont has led the way in vaccination of really its entire population. I wish that our vaccination rates were higher, because I do see those children who aren't vaccinated who end up in the hospital. I expect that Vermont, as a state ,will have one of the higher uptakes when compared to other states across the country. I do worry about it being not high enough.

And I do know that it may be a long process. So this age group is an age group that has a lot of contact with their medical providers. And so they're in the office more often, and it provides us an opportunity to talk to families at each encounter — at each visit — about the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine. We have a lot of interest, and I think there'll be a lot of children vaccinated in the coming weeks. But then we also expect that we'll be talking about the COVID-19 vaccine at every visit in the weeks, months that come — and that we will get our younger kids vaccinated.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with Grace Benninghoff @gbenninghoff1.

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