Buncombe County health officials and local health care providers held a Zoom webinar Nov. 9 to share information about COVID-19 vaccinations for children.
On Oct. 29, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, in a lower dosage than that taken by adults, for children ages 5-11 years. On Nov. 2, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that children in this age group receive the vaccine.
Buncombe County Public Health Director Stacie Saunders; Dr. Lorena Wade of Vaya Health; Dr. Brian O’Donnell, a pediatrician with Mountain Area Pediatrics; and April Baur, Mountain Area Health Education Center school health program manager, participated in the webinar. Megan Williams, a Buncombe County parent, led the discussion.
The vaccine for children uses the same active ingredients as those used in shots for people age 12 and older, Saunders explained, at about one-third of the original dosage. Parental consent is required for anyone under 16 to receive the vaccine while it remains under an emergency use authorization; like other age groups, she continued, children will need two shots for full protection.
Many viewers in the webinar’s chat asked about the vaccine’s efficacy and side effects. Some posed questions such as “How can we see a full list of the ingredients used in this vaccine?” and “What do we know about long-term side effects and potential fertility in pre-pubescent young children?” Others offered comments such as “This is child genocide!” and “Time to get a red pill about what’s really going on before too many dead kids are on your karma.”
O’Donnell addressed clinical trials of about 4,600 children, in which 3,000 were vaccinated against COVID-19 and tracked after vaccination for at least two weeks and up to two months. Those studies found the vaccine was 90.7% effective in preventing severe outcomes from COVID-19 among vaccinated children.
The majority of side effects for many vaccines become apparent in the first four weeks after injection, explained O’Donnell. Common side effects in children who received the COVID-19 vaccine included fatigue, headaches, muscle aches and swollen lymph nodes. These are “pretty normal findings after a vaccine — it’s a good immune response,” he said.
O’Donnell acknowledged that unknown side effects may occur. But he continued, “I’m not comparing the side effects versus nothing. … Usually when I’m talking to people, I compare the vaccine side effects versus COVID disease itself and the side effects we get.”
Baur noted that while children seem to become less severely ill from COVID-19 than do adults — the disease has killed fewer than 600 U.S. residents under 18 through Nov. 3 — there are other health effects to consider. Children can have what is referred to as “long COVID,” she said, and as in adults, those long-term effects are uncertain. According to the CDC, long-term symptoms of COVID-19 can include shortness of breath, change in taste or smell or difficulty thinking or concentrating.
O’Donnell also addressed vaccine-induced myocarditis, an inflammation around and inside the heart. He said that the rate of that condition (about 62 cases per million children ages 12-17 who got two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine) is “the same or less than the background rate that kids get [myocarditis] on a regular basis.” Early data from children who have had COVID-19, he noted in a follow-up email to Xpress, show a higher rate of myocarditis associated with the disease.
Attendees asked the health care providers to address immunity that follows from a viral infection, sometimes called “natural immunity,” as opposed to immunity that comes from a vaccine. Wade said that she prefers not to use the phrase because the physical response generated by the vaccine is the same. “Your body says, ‘This is foreign,’ and it creates a natural immune response,” she explained.
BCHHS shared in a Nov. 9 press release that it had administered about 180 first doses Nov. 5 to children 5-11 years old at the county’s COVID-19 vaccination clinic, located at 40 Coxe Ave. (An additional 90 adults received a first, second or booster dose at the same event.) At press time, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services COVID-19 Response Dashboard did not include data about vaccinations among 5- to 11-year-olds. Individuals under the age of 18 comprise about 18.4% of Buncombe County’s population, according to 2020 census data.
In an October survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 27% of parents said if a COVID-19 vaccine were approved for their child’s age group, they would get the child vaccinated “right away.” Thirty-three percent of parents said they would “wait and see,” while 30% said they would “definitely not” vaccinate their child.