WASHINGTON — Ever since schools closed in March 2020, the parents of school-age children have lived with a daily sense of uncertainty. When would schools open again? When they did, would they stay open? Back in the classroom, would children be safe?
Then, on Monday, came the news that Pfizer’s vaccine is safe and effective for children between ages 5 and 11. “Mom of an 11-year-old here, and I could cry with relief,” tweeted the climate strategist Mary Anne Hitt. Randi Weingarten, head of the powerful American Federation of Teachers, praised the announcement as “Great, great news.”
After a disastrous experiment with remote learning, educators agreed that the new school year needed to mark a return to a pre-pandemic normal. But as with much else, the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus scuttled those plans. While schools have been open this fall, their reopening has been fraught, and hardly free of interruption. According to the data site Burbio, which tracks school reopenings, 2,000 schools across the country have already closed temporarily because of a coronavirus outbreak.
With the cold weather coming, some fear that trend could be exacerbated, forcing children to attend school again from home, where studies have routinely shown they learn less and suffer the psychological consequences of isolation.
Monday’s news from Pfizer therefore offered something the last several months have lacked: hope, in particular for parents and children dreading the prospect of more Zoom school. Pfizer announced that clinical trials for children between the ages of 5 and 11 showed a strong antibody response — and virtually no adverse effects.
“This is the news that many, many parents have been waiting for,” says Dr. Leana Wen, a professor of emergency medicine at George Washington University and the former health commissioner of Baltimore. “I hope that Pfizer will submit for authorization soon and that the FDA will review as quickly and efficiently.”
Every indication is that Pfizer is indeed rushing to submit an application for emergency use authorization to the Food and Drug Administration. But that doesn’t mean children will be rolling up their sleeves tomorrow. The recent controversy over booster shots for adults is a reminder that following the science — as the Biden administration has vowed repeatedly to do — can be a challenging exercise: It takes patience waiting for scientists to do their work.
The White House had prepared to begin administering booster shots for recipients of the two-dose mRNA vaccines this week. But last Friday’s contentious meeting of an FDA advisory panel ended with a narrow recommendation that only people older than 65 or otherwise at high risk receive booster shots. The panel considered only the Pfizer vaccine; the other mRNA vaccine, manufactured by Moderna, does not yet have full approval from the government.
A similar dynamic could play out when it comes to childhood vaccination. Earlier this month, the FDA issued a statement that anticipated the forthcoming Pfizer announcement, acknowledging that parents are “anxious about the pandemic and protecting their children” but asking for patience with the regulatory process. “It’s important that the public recognize that, because young children are still growing and developing, it’s critical that thorough and robust clinical trials of adequate size are completed to evaluate the safety and the immune response to a COVID-19 vaccine in this population,” the FDA statement said.
There is little dispute that the vaccine works, even though children were offered a much smaller dose than adults. The biggest concern for regulators is myocarditis, a relatively rare heart disorder that tends to affect younger men. Pfizer did not release data from its clinical trials on Monday; a statement from the company made no mention of adverse effects among participants, but regulators will scrutinize data carefully before coming to any conclusion.
The scrutiny will take place as outdoor activities become increasingly difficult across Northern states, including several that have not yet experienced a Delta surge. There had been reports that approval may take place before the end of October, providing American children with a Halloween treat.
FDA officials made clear during the booster debate that they won’t be browbeaten into moving faster, not even by the White House. “I have no information to share about timing at this time,” an FDA spokeswoman, Abigail Capobianco, told Yahoo News in response to an inquiry about whether Pfizer’s announcement would speed the approval process.
“A lot depends on the FDA, which is why I am not saying it will happen by Halloween,” Dr. Kavita Patel, a former Obama administration policy aide who is now a Brookings Institution fellow, told Yahoo News. “Also, it’s not like we will have all kids vaccinated overnight. Getting the flu shots out takes months.”
Others say that while the news is good, it obscures a bigger truth: Children were never at high risk for contracting COVID-19 in the first place. Although hospitalizations of children have risen in recent weeks, age remains closely tied to the incidence and severity of disease.
“It’s great that we’re nearing a safe and effective vaccination regime for younger children, but I hope that it doesn’t cause people to lose sight of the already near-zero risk posed to children by the virus,” says Rory Cooper, a political consultant from northern Virginia who became an advocate of reopening schools last year.
Although schools already mandate a bevy of inoculations, it is not clear that they will do so with the coronavirus vaccine when it comes to the younger cohort, especially since approval will be granted under an emergency use authorization. That will leave vaccination for the 5-to-11 demographic up to parents, which could in turn lead to a fresh round of the immunization culture wars.
If childhood COVID immunizations become politicized — and there is good reason to believe they will be, given the furor over mask mandates in schools — vaccination rates for children could end up being much lower than for adults, 77 percent of whom have received at least one shot. According to the latest Yahoo News/YouGov poll, 56 percent of parents with children under 18 say either that their kids have already been vaccinated (18 percent) or that they plan to get them vaccinated when the shots are fully approved (38 percent). The rest say they won’t get their kids vaccinated (23 percent) or that they’re not sure (21 percent).
“I think people will see the health benefit as low (which it is), and there are a lot of concerns about myocarditis,” Brown University economist Emily Oster wrote in an email to Yahoo News. “Most of the hesitation I see is really just the low-benefit thing. I think if it means kids will not have to quarantine, then that will help a lot.”
Quarantine rules could be relaxed in places where elementary and middle school students are vaccinated, but much about what schools will look like with vaccination remains uncertain. The vaccine itself, though, is soon to become a reality.
“We have to applaud another tool in the battle against COVID,” says another advocate of reopening schools, educator Karen Vaites. “Clearly, many families will feel more comfortable resuming normal activities with their 5- to 11-year-olds vaccinated.”
With reporting by Andrew Romano.
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