Here's what parents should know about the COVID-19 vaccine's safety, effectiveness, and availability for kids.

By Nicole Harris
Updated June 14, 2021
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After months of struggling through virtual schooling, telecommuting, and social distancing, parents finally have a piece of good news: COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out across the country. Three vaccine candidates (Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson) have received emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

On May 10, the Pfizer vaccine was approved for children 12 and up, which makes it available to high schoolers and some middle schoolers. About 3.5 million kids ages 12 to 15 have already gotten their first dose. Pfizer plans to apply for emergency use authorization for kids ages 5 to 11 in September, according to The New York Times, and those 6 months and older may receive eligibility later this fall.

Moderna isn't far behind. On May 25, it announced results of its TeenCOVE study, which included more than 3,700 participants between ages 12 and 17 years old. Two doses of the vaccine proved 100 percent effective in this age group-and one dose was 93 percent effective- with no major side effects.

Moderna hopes to receive emergency use approval for adolescents ages 12 to 17 this June, and younger kids may get the go-ahead later this year. Both Moderna and Johnson & Johnson can currently be given to anyone 18 and older.

Here's everything parents need to know about the COVID-19 vaccine and kids.

Pediatric Trials for COVID-19 Vaccines

When clinical trials first began, children were largely excluded, which is why many haven't received COVID-19 vaccine approval yet. The exclusion was partly for ethical reasons because kids can't fully comprehend and consent to the trials. Also, children have different bodies and immune systems than adults, so experts want to understand safety risks thoroughly before undergoing pediatric testing, says Christine Turley, M.D., Pediatrics Specialist and vice chair of research at Atrium Health Levine Children's.

Now that researchers know more about the COVID-19 vaccine, pediatric clinical trials are finally underway. Both Moderna and Pfizer began pediatric trials for children 6 months to less than 12 years old. According to The New York Times, Pfizer expects to have results for kids ages 5 to 11 by September, with data for those ages 2 through 5 available soon after that. Kit Longley, a spokesman for Pfizer, said results for trial participants between 6 months and 2 years old could be available in October or November.

Moderna hopes to have more data in the next few months as well. Additionally, Johnson & Johnson announced pediatric testing plans for children 12 and older, which will be followed by tests involving newborns and adolescents.

parents with little girl getting vaccinated, everyone wearing face masks
Credit: Getty Images

Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Safe for Kids?

Currently, all COVID-19 vaccines are administered under an emergency use authorization (EUA) from the FDA. During a press conference about the Biden administration's goals of vaccinating adolescents, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said that parents should feel confident in the safety data generated by this process. While the EUA monitoring period is shorter than that for a traditional license, she said most adverse vaccine reactions occur in the first six weeks after a vaccine is administered.

We're still learning the effects of a COVID-19 vaccine on kids because of their initial exclusion from clinical trials. But researchers haven't seen any red flags in clinical trials as they thoroughly evaluate the dosage, side effects, frequency, and other important elements. Experts understand that children have different immune systems and body functions than adults, and they only approve a pediatric vaccine if they're absolutely sure of its safety.

Indeed, Pfizer's current pediatric trials involve a lower dose than what's given to adults and adolescents; experts came up with the dosage based on early trials that assessed safety. According to The New York Times, kids between 5 to 11 years old will be given two doses of 10 micrograms each, which is about one-third of the dose given to adults and adolescents. Children under 5 years will be given two doses, each with three micrograms.

Still, some parents worry about the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccines, since they received approval in record time. But Dr. Turley stresses that all safety procedures have been properly followed in the clinical trials, and only the administrative components have been sped up. "The FDA worked closely with vaccine experts to study a vaccine design for COVID-19," she says. "Trial design usually takes a long time, which contributes to a long time for vaccine approval, but this was all discussed before we even had a candidate."

When COVID-19 vaccines receive FDA approval for kids, you shouldn't fear getting one, stresses Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy and Asthma Network and co-investigator on the vaccine trials. "Do not be fearful of the vaccine if you are recommended to get it, as risk of infection may outweigh any risks from the vaccine," she says. Widespread vaccination will help stop COVID-19 in its tracks, letting everyone get back to life as we knew it. 

That said, here's something to note: The CDC recently confirmed 226 cases of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of heart's outer lining) in people 30 and younger who received Pfizer or Moderna, and they're investigating a couple hundred more instances. Symptoms occur mostly in males after the second dose, and they include chest pain, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath. Most cases resolve with treatment. While myocarditis after vaccination remains a rare event, medical organizations are further studying a potential link to the mRNA vaccines in young people. The CDC still recommends that everyone 12 years of age and older get vaccinated.

Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Effective?

So far, early data on COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness in kids looks promising. On March 31, Pfizer announced that its vaccine is 100 percent effective in preventing illness in 12- to 15-year-olds and, on May 10, received emergency use authorization for this age group. Moderna also says that two doses of its vaccine are 100 percent effective in those between ages 12 and 17.

Both Pfizer and Moderna require two doses (Pfizer's second dose is given three weeks after the first one, while Moderna's is given four weeks afterward). Real-world data shows that the first dose is about 50 percent effective against the coronavirus in adults. The second dose increases the efficiency to about 94 or 95 percent-but only after your immune system kicks in (about two weeks after the second dose).

Johnson & Johnson's vaccine, on the other hand, requires only one dose. It's about 72 percent effective against the coronavirus in America, but it's shown to protect against severe forms of illness and death. (Note: After a temporary pause by the CDC, Johnson & Johnson is back on the market with a warning about a rare blood clotting condition linked to the vaccine).

Should My Child Get the COVID-19 Vaccine?

Parents can weigh the pros and cons of the vaccine, but when your kids are eligible, experts stress the importance of getting it. Kids generally have been spared from the worst of the coronavirus, but about 14.1 percent of COVID-19 cases are in pediatric patients, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Several kids have died from the virus, and others have gotten a mysterious and deadly illness called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C)

A recent study published by the CDC showed that the hospitalization rate for adolescents with COVID-19 was 2.5 to 3 times higher than that age group's rate for the flu. "The benefits of vaccination far outweigh any risks," said Dr. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States, during a recent press conference. "It's easy to forget that not getting vaccinated is a choice that puts our kids at higher risk of getting COVID."

What's more, children can easily pass COVID-19 to parents, grandparents, and those with underlying health issues who might suffer more severe consequences. "We can't get community immunity until we know that known carriers are protected," says Dr. Turley. If majority of the population does not get vaccinated, "it will be harder to stop the spread of COVID-19" in America, adds Dr. Parikh.

For the same reason, it's also vital for caregivers and relatives of children to receive the vaccine. "If your child goes to school, parents and grandparents should take the vaccine to protect themselves, especially if you fall into one of those high-risk groups," says Dr. Parikh. "We know children can transmit the infection asymptomatically." 

Finally, Dr. Murthy recently stressed that vaccination opens up activities with friends and at school that have been severely curtailed, from "sleep overs, and birthday parties to school plays and soccer games." He adds: "Ultimately the vaccine is a pathway to getting back to the rich parts of life that bring our kids joy and fulfillment."