COVID vaccines for young children 'safest route' to protection from virus: CHOP doctors

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Both Pfizer and Moderna's COVID vaccines were shown in studies to produce "adequate" antibodies to the virus in young children, signaling they will prevent severe infections that lead to hospitalizations or death, according to a CHOP doctor who oversaw vaccine trials at the Philadelphia children's hospital.

The vaccines now are available to children as young as 6 months old, following recent approval by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.

Dr. Jeffrey Gerber, principal investigator for Moderna trials at CHOP, and Dr. Lori Handy, medical director of Infection Prevention and Control, weighed in on the move in a media briefing Tuesday, giving their input and explaining what they know as of right now.

"The good news was that in these studies, there were not severe infections in kids of these young age," said Gerber, an attending physician at the hospital's Division of Infectious Diseases.

"That's the good part, because we don't like to see severe infections. The downside was they could not come up with data that showed how it prevented against severe infections. But if we can extrapolate from adult data — and I think we can — what the effectiveness of each of these vaccines in adults does seem to be predictive. Prevention of severe infection and death is really good with these vaccines, even if the prevention of symptomatic infection is low, which we've seen during the omicron era."

New infections reached record levels this winter thanks to the fast-spreading omicron virus. While many exhibited moderate, flu-like symptoms, hospitals still were overrun with patients with more severe illness, a large number of whom were unvaccinated.

Pharmacist Kaitlin Harring, left, administers a Moderna COVID-19 vaccination to three year-old Fletcher Pack, while he sits on the lap of his mother, McKenzie Pack, at Walgreens pharmacy Monday, June 20, 2022, in Lexington, South Carolina.
Pharmacist Kaitlin Harring, left, administers a Moderna COVID-19 vaccination to three year-old Fletcher Pack, while he sits on the lap of his mother, McKenzie Pack, at Walgreens pharmacy Monday, June 20, 2022, in Lexington, South Carolina.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, a total of 111,011 new COVID-19 cases were reported in May, almost three times as many as in April. There were an average of 3,581 cases per day in May, more than two times the previous month. The number of people hospitalized on June 1 was 1,329, twice as high as it was on May 1.

A total of 402,303 COVID-19 vaccines were administered last month, averaging 12,978 doses per day and doubling April's total vaccinations, the department said.

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How are vaccines given to young children?

Before this announcement, the Pfizer vaccines were available for children as young as five, while Moderna vaccines were available for children as young as six. The CDC and medical professionals across the nation are now in a phase where they’re finding out what exactly are the best ways to go about administering these doses and making it easily accessible to the public.

Doses for children ages 6 months to 5 years old are smaller than those received by teens and adults, Gerber said. Moderna's dosage is 25 micrograms, a quarter of the adult dosage, while the Pfizer dosage for children under 5 is 3 micrograms, a 10th of what an adult receives.

The spacing of doses will be “similar to what we see in adults; with Moderna you have two doses that are separated by four weeks. Pfizer has three doses, in which the first two are separated by three weeks, followed by a third shot that has to come at a minimum of eight weeks after the second shot” Gerber said. “Overall the Moderna series is complete in about a month while the Pfizer takes about three months to complete.”

Handy said children who are vaccinated could have a low-grade fever, pain at the injection site or irritability, which should resolve themselves quickly.

“There really has been no signal from these initial trials of any concerning safety event; we’ll continue to track that as more and more children are vaccinated.” said Handy. “If we’re going to see a side effect relating to any vaccine it should be observed in those first couple of days, potentially up to six weeks and at most two months.”

Longer-term side effects have not been detected, Handy said.

"Everybody is going to get a COVID-19 infection if they haven't already," Handy said. "Choosing vaccine is the safest route for everybody to avoid the complications of the virus itself."

Handy said children who already had a COVID-19 infection should also be vaccinated. In cases of recent infection, they can wait a few months before getting the shot.

"The key thing here is that a natural infection gives a broad range of immunity," she said. "The vaccine gives very specific immunity to one part of the virus. I think of them them as complimentary to each other. The best scenario is having both immunities."

Addressing concerns the vaccines have been approved too quickly, Gerber said both went through the same testing as all other vaccines.

"It's an unprecedented time," he said. "Although these vaccines have come to market really quickly, relative to the historical process, no corners have been cut. These studies have been well-planned, thoroughly analyzed for safety and effectiveness. The studies were conducted as typical, just in a more compressed time frame because people dropped everything else they were doing. Everybody had laser focus on this."

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This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: COVID vaccines for young children safe, effective, CHOP doctors say