Feds could soon approve COVID vaccine for kids under 5. What to know in NY

David Robinson
New York State Team

The push to vaccinate the youngest New Yorkers against COVID-19 is underway, as health officials race to educate parents about the benefits of getting the shots for children under age 5.

From massive vaccine distribution networks to intimate discussions in medical offices about side effects and efficacy, the sprawling effort would mark a long-awaited milestone in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout that began in late 2020.

An expert panel on Wednesday, June 15, unanimously found Moderna's vaccine safe for children ages 6 months to 6 years old and provided protection against COVID-19. The committee also voted to support a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for a similar age group. 

If its decision is upheld by the Food and Drug Administration's commissioner and then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccines will be available for young children as soon as Tuesday. 

But vaccinating the youngest children, in some ways, could pose the toughest challenge yet.

Camila Escovedo, 5, gets her first COVID vaccine dose at Kakiat school in Spring Valley on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021. Pharmacist Rupal Dar of TruCare in Pomona administered vaccines for children and adults, as well as boosters, during the clinic at the East Ramapo school.

Many parents nationally remain reluctant to get the shots for this age group, which faces less risk of severe COVID-19 cases than older people.

Anti-vaccine groups have also spread misinformation online about the vaccines’ risks for children, despite studies showing the shots are safe and effective at limiting COVID-19 illness in kids.

Further, plummeting COVID-19 cases in New York seemingly reduced the sense of urgency for vaccination, despite the looming threat of a resurgence in the fall. New York’s vaccination and booster pace, for example, has significantly slowed from prior waves of infections.

Meanwhile, only 37% of New York children ages 5-11 have been fully vaccinated, suggesting parents here are refusing, or delaying, getting the shots for their kids.

Against that backdrop, USA TODAY Network New York compiled the following information and answers to key questions about the COVID-19 vaccinations for ages under 5.

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How to get COVID vaccines for kids under 5 in NY

A pediatric COVID-19 vaccine is administered at Beacon High School on November 10, 2021.

Once approved, New Yorkers will be able to get COVID-19 vaccines for children under 5 at a broad range of sites in the community and medical settings.

That includes pediatricians’ and other doctors’ offices, community health centers, rural health clinics, children’s hospitals, public health clinics, local pharmacies, and other community-based organizations, the White House said last week.

In New York, pop-up vaccine clinics are also expected to reach the age group, building upon the “vax for kids” campaign launched earlier this year by Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration for older kids. Many of these sites aim to reach people in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods with histories of health inequality.

The federal government is initially shipping out 10 million COVID-19 vaccine doses for kids under 5, and millions of additional doses will follow in coming weeks.

Federal regulators were expected to approve the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines for the age group of 6 months through 4 years. The vaccines will be free because lawmakers recently renewed federal COVID-19 relief funding.

Health care providers throughout New York, excluding New York City, have pre-ordered a total of 39,300 doses of COVID-19 vaccine for children under 5 years so far. That pre-order is comprised of 13,400 doses of the Moderna and 25,900 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech, state officials said.

In New York, people can find COVID-19 vaccines online at www.Vaccines.gov, or by calling the state hotline: 1-833-NYS-4-VAX.

Are COVID vaccines for kids safe, effective?

Vials of the pediatric COVID-19 vaccine before being injected at Beacon High School on Nov. 10, 2021.

Vaccine side effects in the youngest age groups were similar to those in older children, including short-term fever and redness at the injection site, studies showed.

Neither the Moderna nor the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine trial in young children found any cases of allergic reactions to the shots or myocarditis, the swelling of the heart muscle occasionally seen among adolescent boys and young men after vaccination. 

In the Pfizer-BioNTech trial, three shots – the third given at least eight weeks after the second – protected more than 75% of children ages 6 months to 2 years and 82% of those ages 2 to 5, and there was no significant increase in side effects. 

The trial included about 4,500 children in five countries; twice as many participants got the active vaccine than got a placebo.

The Pfizer-BioNTech trial had been designed to wait for results until 21 children in either the placebo or active vaccine group contracted COVID-19. Although cases have risen in recent weeks, only 10 had tested positive for the coronavirus this month, so technically, the effectiveness results are considered preliminary.

In Moderna's trial of 6,700 children ages 6 months to under 6 years old, company researchers found that two 25-microgram doses led the children to develop levels of virus-fighting antibodies comparable to young adults who received two full-strength shots.

In the study, which took place during the omicron wave, researchers found the vaccine was 51% effective among children 6 months to under 2 and 37% effective among children 2 to under 6.

While New York has reported more than 1.5 million so-called breakthrough COVID-19 infections among fully vaccinated people so far, the vaccines have proven highly effective at preventing severe illness and hospitalization in ages 5 and above, state data show.

How COVID impacts children in NY

James Hogan II sits with his wife, Rebekah, daughter Caleigh, 15, and sons Sebastian, 9, and Ben, 14, in the living room of their home in Troy, N.Y. April 7, 2022. In October 2020, the entire family contracted COVID-19. Almost a year and a half later, they all suffer symptoms of long COVID. James, a disabled military veteran is on permanent disability, and has had to take on the role of caregiver for his family despite his lingering symptoms. Rebekah, a registered nurse, has been unable to work due to her COVID symptoms. As a result the family has eaten into much of their life savings.

The initial omicron variant wave this past winter infected thousands of New York children, prompting public health alerts by state officials about outbreaks in the age group.

The warnings came after COVID-19 had comparatively less impact on children during initial waves of the pandemic, as the virus devastated older Americans.

And while most COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations involved ages 60 and above, the illness still sent thousands of children to hospitals in New York, including about 3,800 kids under age 5.

The COVID-19 death toll in New York for ages under 10 totaled 31, and another 32 deaths involved ages 10 to 19, state data show.

Still, only about 18% of parents of children under 5 years plan to vaccinate their child against COVID-19 right away, while about 38% said they would wait and see, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found.

Karen Weintraub of USA TODAY contributed to this report.

David Robinson is the state health care reporter for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached atdrobinson@gannett.com and followed on Twitter:@DrobinsonLoHud