Here’s What It’s Like Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine as a Kid—From a Family Doing the Clinical Trials
Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson: Three reasons to breathe a sigh of relief in America. These COVID-19 vaccines have received emergency use approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to fight against the coronavirus, which has caused 32.7 million infections and 581,302 deaths in our country. Every American adult can receive a COVID-19 vaccine—and the FDA just approved Pfizer for children older than 12.
This approval follows months of extensive pediatric clinical trials overseen by the FDA. Because the organization already completed vaccine safety tests on tens of thousands of adults—and because Americans have received more than 259 million vaccine doses with no major adverse reactions—the pediatric trials were designed to "bridge the vaccine in a safe way to younger groups," says Paul Spearman, M.D., Director of Infectious Diseases at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.
Many brave children and teens have participated in clinical trials nationwide, including 14-year-old Ty Dropic from northern Kentucky. Ty signed up for the Pfizer trial through Cincinnati Children's Hospital, and while he doesn't yet know whether he received Pfizer or the placebo, he shared his experience with us.
Keep reading to hear more from a Pfizer pediatric trial participant, and learn why experts say children should get vaccinated as soon as they're able.
Signing Up for a COVID Vaccine Clinical Trial
Ty signed up for the clinical trial after a suggestion from his mom, Amanda Dropic, M.D., who works as a pediatrician. "My mom came to me with the idea and said that it's been tested in adults, and it's been safe in adults," he says. "It would help the community a lot and there weren't really any downsides to it." After speaking with his mom about the potential vaccine side effects—like headache and soreness at the injection site—Ty determined that the benefits of joining the trial outweighed any risks.
Indeed, pediatric approval of a COVID-19 vaccine would be a major step toward ending the pandemic. Children and teens have mostly been spared from severe COVID-19 disease, but in rare cases, they can get serious symptoms that lead to hospitalization or death. Young people can also transmit the virus to others who may be more susceptible, says Dr. Spearman. A scary illness known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) has been reported in some COVID-positive kids—and so have long-term side effects that aren't completely understood yet.
What's more, vaccinating kids and teens might allow them to return to "normal life" sooner. That means no more remote schooling, social distancing, or mask wearing—necessary precautions that have taken a toll on the mental health of America's youth.
Receiving the Pfizer Vaccine
Ty was 13 years old when he enrolled for the vaccine clinical trial. Before getting the Pfizer jab, he needed a blood test and COVID-19 nasal swab test. "The nasal swab tickled the back of your nose for a second—it doesn't feel good, but it's only for a second," he says. Then it was time for the vaccine, which Ty stresses wasn't a big deal. "It pokes your arm but that's really all."
Ty doesn't know whether he received Pfizer or a placebo. (Placebos are necessary in clinical trials to provide a point of comparison). His family requested to be "unblinded," but they're not expecting to receive the information until after Pfizer gets FDA approval. That said, if Ty learns he got the placebo, he's "hoping to, as soon as possible, get the vaccine."
Monitoring for Vaccine Side Effects
The next step in the pediatric clinical trials: monitoring participants for side effects. For one week after receiving the vaccine, Ty completed a daily electronic "vaccine diary," which is basically a health check-in to monitor symptoms. After that seven-day time period, he has to complete the vaccine diary once per week for the next two years. The ongoing research helps scientists track any long-term effects of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in children.
Ty's mom, Dr. Dropic—who also has three other children (now ages 8, 10, and 16) in Pfizer pediatric trials—talked more about the check-ins. She says if her children come down with fever, cough, congestion, or other COVID-19 symptoms within two years of getting the vaccine, they have to call it in. Then "we send in a swab and they do a visit."
As of now, though, Ty hasn't experienced any side effects, and his siblings only had minor symptoms. That's actually very normal, and it correlates with the experience of adults who've received a COVID-19 vaccine. "Many of those who received the vaccine appeared to tolerate it well without side effects," explains Dr. Spearman. "Others got sore arms or a little bit of tiredness. Sometimes they have other systemic side effects like headaches. In general, though, there are very mild side effects."
Dr. Spearman adds there's some initial evidence the COVID-19 vaccine could be better tolerated in children than adults. However, it's too early to make that call with complete certainty.
Dealing with Vaccine Hesitancy
Ty isn't the only young person excited about the vaccine. In fact, he explains that most teens in his community definitely want the vaccine, or else they're still deciding. "I haven't had any people who have said, 'No, I'm not gonna get the vaccine,'" he says.
But as we've learned, opinions about all things COVID-related vary widely, and vaccine hesitancy is a real problem in our country. Data from Kaiser Family Foundation Covid-19 Vaccine Monitor, published in early May, showed that only 29 percent of parents say their child will get vaccinated when they're eligible. An additional 32 percent will "wait a while to see how the vaccine is working" before signing up, says the study. About 15 percent will only get their children vaccinated if required by their school, while 19 percent "definitely won't get their child vaccinated."
Dr. Spearman understands why parents are hesitant about these vaccines, but he stresses that there's nothing to fear. "We hope parents look at all the safety data we have for these mRNA vaccines. That includes looking at the data from the tens of millions of individuals who have received the vaccines in the adult age groups," he says.
And while it's true the vaccines have been developed in record time, Dr. Spearman says that clinical trials didn't rush through any safety procedures. Only administrative components were sped up. "Even though the vaccine authorization and development process moved very quickly, it was done with a lot of care and it's still being done that way," he explains. "Parents should be reassured by the high quality of the studies being done to establish safety and immunogenicity of this vaccine."
COVID-19 Vaccine for Kids: Moving Forward
Pfizer and Moderna are currently testing children 6 months and older in clinical trials. Johnson & Johnson also announced pediatric testing plans of its own.
After getting emergency use authorization for those ages 12 to 15, Pfizer now hopes to make the vaccine available to kids ages 2 to 11 in September. Moderna will probably apply for emergency use authorization in children soon too.
Dr. Spearman hopes that more parents will become less hesitant as time goes on. "In my opinion, it's gonna be a great advantage for us in getting kids back to normal activities and getting our whole population back to normal activities," he explains.
Here's what Ty has to say: "The vaccine is safe and it's effective. Once you get the vaccine, that's the start of where you can get your masks off, stopping temperature checks, and going back to in-person school. It's gonna be a big change back to normal." But like most young people in America, he's ready for it.