The United States has started vaccinating primary school-aged children against COVID-19, in what leading US health officials have welcomed as an “important step forward” in the country’s fight against the coronavirus.
The Biden administration has promised enough doses to protect the nation’s 28 million children aged five to 11, who have been authorised to receive paediatric jabs of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine.
“Together, with science leading the charge, we have taken another important step forward in our nation’s fight against the virus that causes COVID-19,” Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said late on Tuesday after granting final approval to the child vaccination campaign.
“We know millions of parents are eager to get their children vaccinated and with this decision, we now have recommended that about 28 million children receive a COVID-19 vaccine,” she said in a statement.
The vaccination campaign for children aged five to 11 is expected to hit full speed by November 8, White House officials said earlier this week, but some children already started getting their jabs at hospitals and health clinics on Wednesday.
Brian Giglio, of Alexandria, Virginia, brought his eight-year-old son Carter in for a jab at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC. The boy has Type 1 diabetes, which puts him at risk for complications if he were to become infected.
“Carter is the last in our house to get vaccinated and he was always the one that we had the most concern about,” Giglio, 40, told The Associated Press. “And so today is like a hallway pass for us to begin living life again and we couldn’t be more thankful to everybody that’s been involved in this process to helping us feel that freedom that we feel today.”
The move to vaccinate children comes at a critical moment in the pandemic in the US.
Children have been back to in-person learning since the beginning of the school year, but although most students and teachers wear masks, breakouts have been fairly common, leading entire classrooms to have to quarantine.
The jabs for schoolchildren, parents said, mean sleepovers, playdates and family get-togethers put off for more than a year will be back on the agenda for many, while the risk of school interruptions will decrease, as well.
“For parents all over this country today this is a day of relief and celebration after almost 18 months of anxious worrying every time your child had a sniffle or started to cough,” Biden said during a speech at the White House on Wednesday afternoon.
“Well now you can protect them from this horrible virus,” he said.
Cate Zeigler-Amon, 10, arrived with her mum and was first in line early Wednesday to receive a drive-through vaccination at Viral Solutions in Atlanta, Georgia. The girl bounced around the car, her body hanging halfway out the window in excitement before the jab, which she broadcast live on her computer during morning announcements at her elementary school.
Afterwards, Zeigler-Amon told the AP she was “very, very, very excited and very happy”, and looked forward to eating inside a restaurant, hugging her friends, and celebrating her birthday indoors next month “instead of having a freezing cold outside birthday party”.
Jabs of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children in the five-to-11 age bracket are one-third the dose given to older children and adults, and they are administered with smaller needles. They require two doses, received three weeks apart, plus two more weeks for full protection to kick in.
The vaccine cleared two final hurdles on Tuesday after a recommendation from CDC health advisers and then the green light from Walensky, the agency director.
“There are children in the second grade who have never experienced a normal school year,” Walensky said. “Pediatric vaccination has the power to help us change all of that.”
Thousands of paediatricians pre-ordered doses, and Pfizer began shipments soon after the Food and Drug Administration on Friday issued emergency authorisation to administer the jab to young children.
Pfizer said it expected to make 19,000 shipments totalling about 11 million doses in the next several days, and that millions more will be available to order on a weekly basis.
“This is a big milestone for five to 11-year-olds because they make up nearly 40 percent of children under 18,” said Dr Jennifer Shu, a Decatur, Georgia, paediatrician who received her first shipment of doses on Tuesday morning.
According to CDC data (PDF), since the pandemic began, at least 94 children aged five to 11 have died from COVID-19, more than 8,300 have been hospitalised and more than 5,000 have developed a serious inflammatory condition linked to the coronavirus.
Black and Latino children and those with chronic conditions have been among the hardest hit.
School closures throughout the pandemic have disproportionately burdened children of colour, widening academic gaps and worsening mental health, according to data presented on Tuesday to CDC advisers.
More than 2,000 COVID-related school closures were recorded in just the first two months of the current school year, the data also showed. Advocates have said getting school-aged children vaccinated will reduce those disruptions.