Just one month ago, Jillian Dempsey’s 19-month-old son had never been inside a grocery store. He couldn’t reliably wear a mask at such a young age, and Dempsey, a chemistry professor at UNC, said she didn’t feel safe potentially exposing her unvaccinated child to COVID-19.
Though the country has reduced mask-wearing requirements and other pandemic precautions as a whole, children under 5 years of age have had no access to approved COVID-19 vaccines — until now.
The FDA approved the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines for children as young as 6 months old on June 17, nearly eight months after Pfizer’s approval for ages 5-11.
Dempsey’s son will be vaccinated Friday at a local pediatrician’s office, and she said his vaccination will change the way she goes about her daily life.
“We are looking forward to having a little bit more liberty to take risks and do things as a family,” she said.
Dempsey said she plans on going to more social events once her son is vaccinated.
Eligibility for the Pfizer vaccine was expanded from age 4 down to 6 months, while the Moderna vaccine was approved for age 17 down to 6 months.
The Pfizer vaccine will be administered in three small doses, while Moderna will be administered in two. No boosters have been approved for these newly eligible groups yet.
Multiple delays due to concerns about efficacy in the age group pushed back the approval of the eligibility expansion for both vaccines, which Dempsey said has been irritating.
“It’s been very frustrating to have these extensive delays, and have those delays coupled with the lift of all precautions and mandates in the area associated with masking when we’ve left children under 5 unprotected,” Dempsey said.
Noel Brewer, a parent of two newly eligible children, prominent cancer and vaccination researcher and professor at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, said he was also frustrated by the delay in the vaccine’s approval. He said he would return to work in person in the fall for the first time since the start of the pandemic because his children would be vaccinated.
Brewer said his 4-year-old son is used to the precautions of the pandemic and has learned to live with COVID-19 as a fixture in daily life.
“He’s a masking native,” he said. “He knows you wear a mask on a plane, you wear a mask when you go indoors, it’s second nature to him. In fact, it sets him at ease.”
According to a survey conducted in April by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy nonprofit, only 18 percent of parents said they were eager to vaccinate their child. Nearly 30 percent of parents say they would not vaccinate their newly eligible child, and another 11 percent said they would only do so if it was required.
Dr. Matthew Vogt, an associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at UNC, said the vaccines have been proven to be both safe and effective.
Vogt said that every pediatrician and scientist he knows supports the vaccine's expansion to younger age groups.
“Everybody I know who has kids that are suddenly in this eligible age group — and these are the people who understand the science and see the sick kids in the hospital — they are all going to get their kids vaccinated as soon as they can,” Vogt said.
He explained that rare side effects like myocarditis, which is the inflammation of the heart muscle, have not occurred in children under 5 as much as in other age groups.
Vogt also said that while most children do not suffer from severe COVID-19 symptoms, occasionally some do.
However, he added that everyone will contract COVID-19 eventually, and the best protection against developing serious symptoms is a vaccination.
“If you’re someone whose immune system has already had the experience on board, to have the antibodies and the immunity ready to go, your odds of being one of these severely ill people goes way, way down,” Vogt said. “Even if you can’t prevent the infection, these vaccines are incredibly good at keeping you from being that severely ill person.”
Children who are 3 years old and above can be vaccinated at any vaccination clinic, including pharmacies and grocery stores. Children younger than 3 can only receive vaccines at local health departments and doctor’s offices.
Several places in the Chapel Hill area are offering vaccines for children under 5, including UNC Pediatrics at Weaver Crossing and the Orange County Health Department.
The Chapel Hill Children and Adolescents’ Clinic is holding a vaccination event for children under 5 on Friday, where Dempsey’s 19-month-old will be vaccinated.
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