Michigan Association of Health Plans

What Does Approval of the Pfizer Vaccine for Teens and Preteens Mean for My Child?

Q: The federal government approved the Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds. What does this mean for my child?

Extending the emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to preteens and young adolescents adds nearly 17 million more Americans to the pool of those eligible to be immunized against covid-19, helping to build a vaccinated population closer to herd immunity. Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are also testing the efficacy of their vaccines in teens and children.

Although children appear to catch covid less often and develop milder symptoms than adults, they can develop a rare, severe inflammatory response or “long-haul covid” symptoms. It also remains to be seen what, if any, long-term effects these younger patients may experience from covid.

The share of covid cases in children and teens is increasing — nearly a quarter of the new weekly covid cases were found in this age group, as reported May 6 by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.

And, though kids have been less likely to develop severe illness, they still can pose a risk to vulnerable people around them because they may not even know they are carrying the virus, as documented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Margaret Stager, a pediatrician and the division director of adolescent medicine at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland, said she has had to explain to her young patients that getting immunized would help their community curb the spread, cut the risk of variants and help society reopen.

“I talk about them doing their part,” Stager said. “That this is all part of them contributing to the greater good.”

The Fine Print

The CDC this week recommended use of the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 after the Food and Drug Administration extended its emergency use authorization to include these preteens and young adolescents. That means this age group now can receive the same shots in the same time frame — 21 days apart — as adults do.

In a reversal of its previous guidance, teens and adults do not need to wait 14 days before or after getting the covid shot to receive a vaccine for another condition. This could be a boon for health care providers who have child patients lagging on other, routine vaccines, which has been a persistent problem during the pandemic.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity to play catch-up,” said Stager.

CDC officials noted in the May 12 Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’ recommendation that they do not have data specifically looking at potential side effects in patients immunized against covid and other illnesses at the same time. However, the agency made the decision given the strong safety data of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot and previous experience with other immunizations.

This question will become more important as covid vaccines are studied in younger children. Trials are planned to test the vaccine in children as young as 6 months old.

As in adults, the question of how long the immunity lasts in children remains unknown, said Dr. Rebecca Wurtz, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Minnesota. However, she said, it’s likely that any waning immunity detected in adults will also be seen among the young.

“Whatever we learn in adults,” Wurtz said, “kids will be not far behind.”

Whether this approval will prompt schools to require vaccination against covid for K-12 students returning to the classroom this fall is a pending question, said Stager. It is unclear whether federal law allows state authorities to mandate a vaccine that has not yet been fully approved. That said, the government’s approval will also likely play into parents’ decisions about sending their children to summer camp.

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