COVID-19 vaccines for children 5 to 11: UChicago medical experts address common questions

On Nov. 2, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was authorized for children ages 5-11. This video addresses some common questions about the vaccine for this age group, and is intended for the broad UChicago community, including the UChicago Charter School and Laboratory Schools. 

Visit the GoForward website for more information, and read the transcript below.

Featured University of Chicago Medicine experts:

  • Allison Bartlett, MD, MS, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Pediatric Infectious Diseases at University of Chicago Medicine
  • Daniel Johnson, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, Pediatric Infectious Diseases at University of Chicago Medicine
  • Monica Peek, MD, MPH, Professor of Medicine, Internal Medicine at University of Chicago Medicine

What do we know about COVID-19 vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds?

DR. BARTLETT: What we know is that the COVID vaccine for our 5- to 11-year-olds is very safe. It’s very effective—91 percent effective in preventing a symptomatic COVID disease in these children—and is well tolerated as well.

How does the data on vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds compare to vaccinations for other age groups?

DR. BARTLETT: What we know from the studies looking at the vaccination in children who are 5 to 11 shows that their antibody response to the vaccine is equivalent to that of both the 12- to 16-year-old age group and older adults as well. So, the same boost to the immune system. We also know that it provides the same level of protection against disease and has about the same level and severity and frequency of side effects associated with the vaccine.

Will 5- to 11-year-old children be getting a different vaccine dosage?

DR BARTLETT: Children will for this Pfizer vaccine be getting a dose that’s one-third of the dose that we’re using for adults. The way that we do pediatric studies is, we try to find the right dose that balances effectiveness of the vaccine and can minimize the side effects. In the studies that were done, giving kids 5 to 11 the adult dose led to a lot of vaccine-associated side effects, a lot of sore arms and fever. So we realized that dose was more than the kids needed. This one-third dose was the perfect balance of great immune response and minimizing the side effects associated with the vaccine.

What are the most common side effects of COVID-19 vaccination for 5- to 11-year-olds?

DR. JOHNSON: We have the data that’s been generated up to this point in time in a few thousand children, that shows that the vaccine has a very similar side effect profile to what we found in adults. Which is, that their arms hurt after they get the vaccine. They may have some redness there. They may have some swelling there. And that lasts for about two days, maybe three days. And then similarly, some children complain of being tired. A very small number, about 10%, reported after the second dose of running a little bit of a fever. But these are all things that are manageable with a nap or with taking an anti-fever medication like acetaminophen, in order to just make the person feel better.

If a child doesn’t get vaccinated and contracts COVID-19, what are the potential risks?

DR. JOHNSON: So, children who get COVID-19, they do pretty well. I’m really happy about that. But for the family where the child gets COVID-19 and gets really sick, those statistics don’t mean very much. Now, we know that about 100 children in the age range of 5 to 11 have died from COVID-19. And it’s about five times as many of that number if we talked about going up to age 18. In terms of hospitalization, we’re talking thousands. And so there are children who get very sick from this infection.

How effective have the COVID-19 vaccines been in protecting our community?

DR. PEEK: What we know about the vaccines is exactly what the scientists predicted, which is that they are saving the lives of individuals and protecting communities. Right now, the people who are getting hospitalized are the ones who primarily have not been vaccinated. And if they have been vaccinated, they’re the ones who are really medically vulnerable and are getting the Delta variant. And we’re getting variants because people are not, as a population, getting vaccinated. So if we had all rushed to get vaccinated at the same time, we wouldn't be seeing these mutants arise. The longer that we go where people are not vaccinated, the more mutants we're going to see. They are heartier. They’re going to be the more infectious. And it’s going to be harder for all of us to fight those mutants off, including the most vulnerable among us. And that means that everyone's going to have to get vaccinated, including our children.

Will the vaccine be easily available for children?

DR. JOHNSON: The supply of the vaccine for kids 5 to 11, there’s plenty of it. So every child in the United States who wants to get vaccinated who’s between the age of 5 and 11 has access to the vaccine. And how is it going to be rolled out? Your doctor’s office. Your place of primary care.  Sure, there will be other locations where there'll be some mass vaccination efforts, but many offices, thousands, are going to have it right there. And we’re no exception to that. We’ll have it right at Comer. And in fact, we’ll have it during regular clinic hours. We’ll also have it on weekends. We’re doing some mass vaccination activity on Saturdays and Sundays. You just got a call to make an appointment. And in fact, on Saturday and Sundays anybody who’s age 5 to 11 who wants to get the vaccine can do that.

As a parent, what difference have the COVID-19 vaccines already made for your family?

DR. BARTLETT: I am the parent of sixth-grade twins and a fourth-grader, which means that I felt the uncertainty around what was going to happen between the third- and fifth-grade Lower School last year very acutely, and we experienced remote learning for much of the year last year, and the inherent struggles of being a working parent and kids in remote learning. I’m so excited that we're back in the classroom this year. Mask use, social distancing, and all the other structures that are in place at Lab will make it an incredibly safe place to send my kids. That said, I was so excited when my twins turned 12 earlier this month, and it was timed perfectly to go get our family flu shots and COVID vaccines at the mobile unit that was set up at lab. They will be getting their second dose, and my nine-year-old is going to be getting his first dose when they get their second dose. And it really adds another layer of both safety and protection for all of the kids and teachers and staff in the schools, but also helps my children stay in the classroom. If there is an exposure at school and they're fully vaccinated, we can manage that differently as long as the kids remain without symptoms. And I'm so excited about anything that can help keep the kids in the classroom.

What does getting back to normal mean for your children?

DR. PEEK: My children are 12. So they are just on the cusp of being able to have been vaccinated with the first children group. And that was life-changing for them and our family. And though I actually loved hunkering down with them during the pandemic and working and having them in the house with me, it was still a challenge. I could see that during that year, it was difficult for them. They missed their friends. They were not able to participate in sports the way that they wanted to, and that’s a huge part of their life. And so, although they were able to push ahead and still be happy, and still maintain their lives, it was different. And so to have them be able to return to the life that they knew, to the things that brought them joy, to the kind of learning and happiness in their school environment that they had had before, brought me peace, brought me joy. And I want for all of the kids at Lab to be able to have that again.

COVID-19 hospitalization rates are especially high for Black, Hispanic and Native American children. Does that highlight the importance of the vaccine in our community?

DR. PEEK: What we have seen throughout this pandemic are disparities by race and ethnicity. There are multiple reasons for that. Structural inequities are driving a lot of these differences. And the fact that we see them in our youngest populations is not surprising to me either. And so what we’re going to have to do is think about strategies in the same way that we thought about them for adults, which is mobilize within our low-income communities, within our communities of color, and really target those communities for outreach efforts to try and get people vaccinated. And that means all of our communities on the South Side of Chicago, including the Hyde Park community.

Will you be recommending the vaccine for your young patients?

DR. BARTLETT: I absolutely am recommending COVID-19 vaccination for my young patients, for my own personal children, and for my not so young patients and family members. I really think that this is something that everyone ought to be taking advantage of.