How Effective Are COVID-19 Vaccines for Kids & Teens? This Is What Doctors Want Parents to Know

As we enter the third year of the coronavirus pandemic it would appear that everyday life is slowly resuming. Mask mandates are lifting, adults are heading back into workspaces and the vaccine is readily available to anyone who is eligible. While this normalcy might be encouraging for some adults, parents are still apprehensive and confused as to what these changes in pandemic protocol mean for their children. 

“I have one kid in Kindergarten and another who is 3, and I’m scared everyday,” said Sara Sutton, a single mom and medical writer in Durham, NC. “I have no choice but to send them to school and daycare so I can work, and I’m just ready for them to be vaccinated. That will provide me so much relief.”

Keeping young children and adolescents safe has been an exhausting daily exercise for parents throughout the coronavirus pandemic. And the recent news surrounding vaccine efficacy in adolescents has only added more uncertainty to the conversation.

A recent (yet to be peer reviewed) study collected by health officials in the state of New York found that “there is limited evidence on the effectiveness” of the PfizerBioNTech coronavirus vaccine in children ages 5 to 11, compared to older adolescents or adults. And the FDA announced on Feb. 11 that they would postpone their discussion all together around approval of a vaccine for children under five. 

“I’ve kind of gotten over my physical exhaustion, or at least adapted,” said Sutton. “But my mental exhaustion from this pandemic is worse than it’s ever been. I just don’t know what to do for my kids. There’s no direct answers.”

So, what is going on with vaccines for children?

In October of 2021, the FDA approved a two-dose primary series of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. Shortly after the emergency authorization, over 6 million children in the United States received at least one dose, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Health officials in New York state conducted a study of those vaccinated to better understand the vaccine’s efficacy in children. They found that the vaccine does prevent severe illness in children, but offers next to zero protection against infection, even within a month after full immunization, according to the data. The data, which was collected during the winter 2021 Omicron surge, is a key player in this equation according to Dr. Robert Frenck, Director of the Vaccine Research Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

A lot of the cases in adolescents occurred during the time that Delta was the predominant strain,” said Dr. Frenck. “While many, perhaps most, of the infections in five to 11 year olds occurred during Omicron. So in a way you are comparing apples to oranges, as we know that Omicron is much more contagious than Delta.” 

Just weeks before the data surrounding five to 11 year olds was released, the FDA announced in a rare move that they would be postponing their meeting to discuss approval of a vaccine for children ages six months to four years old. They cited that they wanted to wait to evaluate data from a series of three doses instead of two. These findings are not expected to be released until April at the earliest. 

“While the percentages are not high, children have died and are still dying of COVID, and God forbid that is your child. You’re done… Thus, my advice is to please vaccinate everyone who can be vaccinated.”

Does the lack of vaccine efficacy in younger children mean you shouldn’t get your child vaccinated?

In short, no. Doctors agree that some vaccination is better than no vaccination. Dr. Noah Greenspan, a cardiopulmonary physical therapist, said while he can understand this thinking on an emotional level, on a scientific level there are other factors to consider. “While the percentages are not high, children have died and are still dying of COVID, and God forbid that is your child. You’re done,” he said. “Obviously, nobody wants their children to get sick, even mildly sick. It is crucial to also recognize that long COVID exists and is not necessarily based upon the severity of the acute illness. This means that even if the acute illness is mild, you can still go on to develop long Covid.”

According to the CDC there have been at least 970 deaths involving COVID in children under 18. While this is a low number in comparison to the over 900,000 American adults who have passed from COVID, Dr. Frenck argues that less than 25 percent of children ages 5-11 are fully vaccinated, which leaves a large remaining group of kids susceptible.

“Thus, my advice is to please vaccinate everyone who can be vaccinated,” he said. 

What resources do doctors recommend to parents who want to know more about vaccine efficacy?

When it comes to finding credible and reputable information regarding COVID vaccination, doctors recommend speaking directly with your child’s physician or pediatrician. They will be the most up to date with your child’s specific health and needs, and can provide you with their expert tailored advice. The amount of misinformation or pseudoscience available online can be overwhelming and misleading, but Dr. Frenck recommends visiting CDC.gov or the American Academy of Pediatrics website for credible information. 

What advice do doctors have for parents when it comes to vaccinating their children?

The general consensus is that while research shows vaccine efficacy might be low in children, vaccinations are still working and are keeping people safe. “In my opinion, anyone who can be vaccinated should be vaccinated,” said Dr. Noah Greenspan. 

As more people remain unvaccinated, the virus will continue to spread and mutate and we will see new variants form, like we saw with Delta and Omicron. Dr. Frenck says that preventing infection is not the right marker, but rather focusing on prevention of moderate to severe disease. 

“The best way to minimize the likelihood of new variants is to have a very high immunization rate so the virus has no one to infect,” he said.  “As I like to say, Covid is an equal opportunity infector. It does not care if you are female or male, young or old, your race, your religion or political affiliation. It’s just looking for a susceptible host to infect. Vaccination is our best way to prevent COVID.”

Before you go, check out our favorite natural products to soothe your kid’s cold symptoms:

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