The White House on Wednesday told reporters the details of its plan to provide COVID-19 vaccines to millions of U.S. children ages 5 to 11 as soon as government health agencies authorize the shot for them.
Once the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention give the go-ahead, the Biden administration says it is ready to deliver shots to arms for 28 million children this holiday season.
The White House said vaccines will be available at doctors' offices, hospitals, pharmacies, community health centers, and school- and community-based sites. By partnering with state governments, the federal government has enlisted more than 25,000 pediatricians' offices and other primary care sites and more than 100 children's hospitals and health systems nationwide to administer the vaccines.
FDA officials are currently reviewing Pfizer/BioNTech's application seeking authorization of its two-dose COVID-19 vaccine for children younger than 12. According to Reuters, an FDA panel of outside advisers will make a recommendation on the vaccine's use for younger children on Oct. 26.
A similar advisory panel for the CDC will meet Nov. 2-3 to discuss the vaccine's use for young children.
"We expect the FDA and CDC's decision on Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 through 11 in the next couple of weeks," White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients said at a COVID-19 Response Team press briefing Wednesday. "We know millions of parents have been waiting for COVID-19 vaccine for kids in this age group, and should the FDA and CDC authorize the vaccine, we will be ready to get shots in arms."
Zients said the administration has worked with Pfizer to modify the packaging of pediatric vaccine doses to make it easier to distribute for children, including using smaller needles.
"By sending vaccines to pediatricians, pharmacies, community health centers, and rural health centers; working with children's hospitals to host vaccination sites, including on nights and weekends; helping schools stand up vaccination clinics; and deploying mobile clinics to meet families where they are, we will ensure that vaccinations for kids ages 5 through 11 are easy, convenient, and accessible to every family," Zients said, adding that the administration is prioritizing "equity and fairness" in the pediatric vaccine program.
While children can get sick with COVID-19, those infected with the disease typically have milder symptoms than adults and some may not show symptoms at all. The American Academy of Pediatrics said that U.S. children represent about 15% of all COVID-19 cases. The CDC added that hospitalization rates for COVID-19 are lower compared to adults, but some children develop acute symptoms that require hospitalization.
According to the CDC, between August 2020 and August 2021, 1,790 children ages 0-17 were hospitalized with COVID-19 and a total of eight in-hospital deaths were recorded related to the virus, out of 73 million American children.
Underlying health conditions like obesity, diabetes, and asthma may increase the risk of children developing serious illness. Additionally, a phenomena known as "long covid" has been observed in children that contract the illness and experience fatigue, muscle and joint pain, headache, insomnia, respiratory problems and heart palpitations well after initial recovery. The long-term effects of COVID-19 in children is still being studied.
Speaking at Wednesday's news conference, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Americans "cannot be complacent" and children in schools must be protected from COVID-19 as the winter months approach.
"Right now, we are going to continue to recommend masks in all schools for all people in those schools. And we will look forward to scaling up pediatric vaccination during this period of time," she said.