COVID-19 Vaccination: Is it Really Safe for My Kids?
The COVID-19 vaccine is now approved and available for all children ages six months and older. During a recent Facebook Live, University of Vermont Children’s Hospital experts Lewis First, MD, chief of pediatrics, and Rebecca Bell, MD, pediatric critical care physician and president of the Vermont Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, answered parent and caregiver questions about the COVID vaccine for kids.
Should I get my child vaccinated? What are the risks and benefits?
Dr. Bell: Yes, we are recommending that all children over the age of six months get vaccinated whether or not they’ve had COVID-19 or have an underlying health condition. Clinical trials for both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were conducted in this age group and the trials included kids who have had COVID-19 infection, kids who haven't had COVID-19 infection, kids with underlying medical conditions and kids with no underlying medical conditions. We feel really confident saying that all kids will benefit from the vaccination.
We take any recommendation we make very seriously. We think about the risks and the benefits and weigh them. And for all children, the benefits outweigh the risks. This is a very safe vaccine with side effects that are very similar to other routine childhood immunizations. And the benefit here is that it really does protect against serious disease, hospitalization and death because the child’s body has gotten critical information from the vaccine. Their body is prepared and ready when they are inevitably exposed to this virus again. After all, this virus is not going away. As a parent and a pediatrician, I vaccinated my children to prepare them for their future.
Dr. First: A lot of infants and toddlers have been isolated these last two years waiting to socialize, go to playgrounds or visit family. The COVID-19 vaccine, now available for children starting at 6 months of age, helps normalize their lives during COVID-19. The more people we can immunize in our communities – from infancy through adulthood – the less likely the virus is going to mutate and develop variants that may be harder to treat.
Do we know about long-term effects from the vaccine? Do we have enough data?
Dr. Bell: This a very common question. We have a lot of data on what happens after people get their vaccine. Hundreds of millions of people just in the U.S. alone have received mRNA vaccines, as far back as two years ago. We do have longstanding data on the months and weeks and moments after vaccination. But parents do say, “What about years down the line?” We've been using immunizations in children for decades and we know that side effects from vaccines will show up in the first two months after vaccination.
Dr. First: In the history of vaccines, we have not had instances where someone gets a vaccine, and then one year later, or five years later, something happens. There's no reason to believe that we would have long-term effects that would show up down the road from the COVID-19 vaccine. We feel confident that we have enough data to know what happens in the first weeks and months after vaccination. And because so many people have been vaccinated, we've been able to manage the very, very, very rare adverse events and respond to them.
Dr. Bell: Something to consider is: What are the long term side effects of the COVID-19 virus? At this point, there's more unknown with COVID-19 than with the vaccine. There's some unknown with this vaccine, but in this situation the unknown really lies with the virus and not so much with the vaccine.
Can children with cardiac conditions receive the vaccine?
Dr. First: Yes. We have a great pediatric cardiology team here at UVM Children's Hospital. And they universally recommend the vaccine for all of their patients. Even their patients with very complex cardiac disease. We know that children with serious cardiac problems could get much sicker if infected with COVID-19 and that is not the case with the vaccine, given what we have learned from the many young patients with underlying heart problems who have been vaccinated. So our pediatric cardiologists universally recommend that all their patients get vaccinated.
How can I get my child vaccinated?
Dr. First: The best place to get the vaccine or learn where to get it is from your child’s “medical home,” meaning their pediatrician or family physician’s office. Now, if for some reason you don't have a medical home or the office or clinic is closed, or you want a particular type or brand of the vaccine, then the Vermont or New York Departments of Health can help you out. You can check out vaccines.gov, which the health departments will link you to as well, and enter your zip code to find a listing of every place that is giving the vaccine on what day, what time and what age and how to get it. Both Vermont and upstate New York continue to have some public health clinics available and there are some pharmacies that are starting to give the vaccine to toddlers and preschoolers. This information can also be found on the health department websites for Vermont and upstate New York.
Is there a difference between the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines?
Dr. Bell: The short answer is: You should get whichever one is easiest for your family to get. Both of these vaccines are mRNA vaccines and they work in exactly the same way. Both vaccine regimens result in antibody levels in children equal to that of older adolescents and young adults. Moderna uses a dose that is one-quarter of their adult dose and achieves the antibody threshold in two doses. Pfizer uses a dose that is one-tenth their adult dose and requires three doses.
If I breastfed my child when I received both of my vaccines, would he have any antibodies?
Dr. Bell: Getting vaccinated while you’re pregnant or breastfeeding is helpful. But getting your child vaccinated is another important and essential way to provide some durable, longer-lasting immunity. We still recommend vaccination for all children so that children can build their own immunity against the virus.
How long will the vaccine protect my child?
Dr. First: We know that immunity starts to wane in the adult vaccines at about four to six months. But we also know that the vaccines help our bodies deal with infection, resulting in many more children and adults having mild symptoms of COVID-19 and far fewer hospitalizations and serious complications than we saw before we began immunizing adults and children. And we now have a much more infectious omicron variant out there, and yet the vaccine is allowing us to deal with this in a much better way – meaning with a milder illness or recurrence of COVID – than if we had no protection on board whatsoever.
It's possible that on a yearly basis, just like flu shots, we may need a booster vaccine that is adjusted for new variants of COVID-19 that we see occurring in other parts of the world and will likely get to this country. And so again, being vaccinated now with the vaccines currently available will help a child or adult get ahead of the virus and increase their chances of having only milder symptoms. Something is better than nothing.
Should I get my child vaccinated now? Or wait?
Dr. Bell: As soon as we go indoors this fall and winter, that's when the germs spread. The summer is an ideal time to get the protection we need to get through the fall and winter as we move forward.
When my child is vaccinated, what short-term side effects should I expect?
Dr. First: We are seeing mild side effects, if any, in the majority of children: basically redness and tenderness at the site of the vaccine. A toddler may say their arm feels sore for a day or so. There may be some fever, but that fever will go away in a day or two. There may be some fatigue as well, and that sense of tiredness, if it does occur, will disappear as well usually within 24 hours of a child getting the vaccine.