What Parents Should Know About Kids and the COVID Vaccine

Central Ohio medical experts say the vaccines are safe and that parents shouldn’t hesitate to sign their children up for the shot.

Chuck Nelson
Camden Beatty, 17, receives his first COVID vaccine from nurse Sarah Foster at Thomas Worthington High School on April 7 during a vaccine clinic for teens set up by Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

All Max Hickey wants for his 12th birthday in August is a COVID-19 vaccination.

Like everyone else, the Upper Arlington middle schooler is anxious to get back to the old normal—hanging out with friends and going to movies and restaurants—all the things people took for granted before the pandemic descended in March 2020. 

Now that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized Pfizer’s vaccine on an emergency use basis for kids 12-15 years old and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed off, it looks like Max may get his wish.

Younger children, too, could soon be eligible to receive the vaccines. According to Pfizer, vaccinations for children 2-11 could be available by fall, with ages 6 months to 2 years added by the end of 2021, if the FDA approves the company’s plans. Other manufacturers have vaccines in pediatric trials as well.

Health officials want to make vaccines available to younger patients through pediatricians and family doctors rather than at large clinics. “Parents and their children can talk to their family doctor about it and get their shot from a provider they trust most,” President Joe Biden said when announcing changes to his administration’s vaccination plan in early May.

The shift in focus follows a rise in COVID-19 cases involving children in early May, according to data from the American Academy of Pediatrics, noting that nearly 4 million children had been infected and at least 300 had died. In light of the new FDA approval, the AAP issued a May 12 policy statement supporting vaccinations for all eligible children age 12 and older.

According to the FDA, in clinical trials, the Pfizer vaccine was shown to be safe and 100 percent effective at preventing COVID-19 in children ages 12-15. This age group showed the same side effects as older recipients: headache, chills, fever, injection-site pain and other symptoms.

“Kids need to be vaccinated,” says Dr. Joseph Gastaldo, an infectious diseases specialist with OhioHealth. “Younger kids can get [the virus]. They don’t get as sick, but like the flu, there are cases of kids getting sick, prolonged illnesses and even death.”

He says vaccine approval for younger children may be a question of determining the proper dose. “Children’s immune systems are different. A 6-month-old body is very different from someone who’s 16 years old. What they do in these studies is try to figure out what is the safest appropriate dose down to 6 months old.”

Call your child’s pediatrician to find out how their office will be administering the vaccine, and to get answers to any questions you might have.

Local Pediatric Trials

The announcements in May reflected months of research, such as the kind for which Reynoldsburg High School freshman Araceli Gaver volunteered. In December, she became one of 2,260 adolescents enrolled in a Pfizer vaccination study for ages 12-15. “I thought it would be really good to do something for kids my age,” she says.

After a thorough physical exam and lots of paperwork, Araceli received a shot on Dec. 22. (“What a Christmas present,” her mother, Celeste, says with a laugh.) A second shot came in January.

The program will follow her progress for two years. She’s been recording information and checking in to report any side effects or COVID-19 symptoms. She doesn’t yet know if she received the vaccine or a placebo. “I feel great,” she says. “I haven’t had any signs or symptoms of COVID-19.”

Gaver was involved in the study through Aventiv Research in Columbus, which recently started enrolling volunteers in two new studies: a Pfizer pediatric study for children 6 months to 11 years old; and a Novavax adolescent study for ages 12-17.

“Children are the largest group of our population that are now getting infected with the coronavirus, and it is our responsibility to get them vaccinated as soon as possible,” Samir Arora, Aventiv’s president and medical director, said in a press release.

The Pfizer vaccine studies are among dozens in various stages of clinical trials around the world. To date, only eight vaccines have been approved for use, and only three—Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen—are available in the United States. Pfizer’s vaccine was the first approved for ages 16 and older; the others start at age 18.

As of May, children ages 12 and older were eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer.

School Clinics

When Ohio made teens 16 and older eligible for the vaccine at the beginning of April, clinicians at Nationwide Children’s Hospital were ready, launching a series of events that brought vaccines to Central Ohio high schools.

“The goal is to provide a vaccination for every student who wants one,” says Dr. Sara Bode, primary care physician and medical director of Nationwide Children’s Care Connection School-Based Health and Mobile Clinics. “We’re holding mass vaccination clinics inside the gymnasiums in these districts, and they’re even busing from other schools in the district over to one site so that we can get more vaccinated at one time.”

With the schools coordinating consent forms and providing space, Bode says the goal is to go to every public school district in Franklin County, offering 15,000 vaccinations to students 16 and older. Demand was not as high as they hoped, but Nationwide Children’s says the clinics had delivered nearly 5,400 first-dose shots by the end of April and more than 4,900 second doses by mid-May.

Bode plans to continue the clinics this summer and expects a similar effort for kids in the 12-to-15 age range to follow. “It’s really been a great opportunity to band together as a community to stand up this effort,” she says.

Public health officials have long been shooting for herd immunity—the idea that the risk of spreading a disease is greatly reduced as large portions of a population (usually 70 percent or higher) become immune through vaccination or exposure. Though many experts are now skeptical that it can be achieved given how vaccinations have leveled off recently, it still remains possible.

Since children make up about a quarter of the U.S. population, vaccinating that group could go a long way to achieving the goal.

“Kids are part of the herd, and we need to talk about them in terms of the herd,” Gastaldo says. “This is science. Science is apolitical. Science benefits everybody.”

This story is from the Summer 2021 issue of Columbus Parent.