Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine was approved in May for 12- to 16-year-olds in the United States, and Moderna’s is likely in June, giving hope that our children will have a more normal life next school year.
Many of my patients are excited about this, and a number of teens I know well — who were terrified of needles — have now proudly shown me their vaccine cards, happy knowing they are on their way to immunity and being with friends again.
Some parents, however, are hesitant to have their teens vaccinated, reasoning that the symptoms of COVID-19 are usually mild for that age group (true), and that the vaccine may pose more risks than the disease (false).
Why vaccinate? To lower risk of death, disability, long-term illness, and infecting others. There have been more than 300 deaths among U.S. children since the start of this pandemic, more than we typically see in any flu season. Many children are suffering from “long COVID,” a new syndrome for which there is no treatment, and that can affect people with mild or even no symptoms of their COVID-19 infection. More than 3,500 children have been diagnosed with an inflammatory disorder call MIS-C, and most have been hospitalized, often being admitted to the Intensive Care Unit. Finally, children with COVID can spread it to high risk people in their lives.
Is the vaccine safe? Yes. The mRNA vaccines, which include Pfizer’s and Moderna’s, are not new and unknown. They have been studied for decades, some having been developed for MERS and SARS-1 early this century. Among the tens of thousands of people who were in the trials for the COVID-19 vaccines, the serious side effects were so few that we cannot even be sure they were from the vaccine, and in fact, were generally the same in the vaccine and placebo groups.
As of today, nearly 300 million vaccines have been given in the United States, with serious side effects at about 1 in a 100,000 or fewer. Compare this to the roughly 1,700 deaths per 100,000 among those who have tested positive for the disease.
Amazingly, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been demonstrated 100% effective in preventing infection among teens. In adults, they are 100% effective in preventing death and serious disease and nearly 95% effective in preventing any disease. Pediatricians are astounded by their safety and effectiveness. This is a dream that could not be imagined a year ago.
How does one get his or her 12- to-16-year-old vaccinated against COVID-19? At the moment, Pfizer’s is the only vaccine approved for this age group. This is a two-shot series mRNA vaccine, with the second injection given three weeks after the first. If Moderna’s is approved, that will be two shots four weeks apart. The website vaccines.gov makes it easy to find a Pfizer vaccine provider. When you go, make sure to get your child’s card documenting the vaccine, and make his or her appointment for the next shot three weeks later. Do not post a picture of the card on social media.
The most common side effects of the vaccine are soreness or redness at the site of vaccination, fever, body aches and fatigue. These are actually signs that your child’s immune system is working. Treat your child with pain relievers if necessary and allow him or her to rest as needed. These effects usually last less than a day or two, and children can go about their normal business after that.
Beyond the obvious direct physical risks of the COVID-19 pandemic, I personally have seen myriad other negative effects on kids over the past year. I have seen social anxiety skyrocket, and depression increase significantly, with a rise in suicidal thoughts. Obesity is up. Now, with this safe and highly effective vaccine, we can start to see the day that all of this will be behind us.
If you have questions or concerns about the vaccine, talk to your pediatrician. Now is the time to help our children have the productive and happy lives they deserve.
Dr. Kathy Smyth is a pediatrician at Sentara Palmyra Medical Associates.