What parents need to know about vaccinating young children against COVID-19

The White House laid out plans Wednesday for children between the ages of 5 and 11 to soon receive the COVID-19 vaccine. If approved, shots could begin as soon as November. But many parents are still wondering about whether to get their children vaccinated. Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, lead epidemiologist for the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 testing insights initiative, joins William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported, the White House laid out plans today so that children between the ages of 5 and 11 could soon receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

    But, as William Brangham reports, many are still wondering about when or whether to get their children vaccinated.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, the White House is hoping for this authorization from the FDA and the CDC for Pfizer's vaccine within a few weeks. That's after federal regulators examine the safety and efficacy of a low-dose vaccine for kids.

    Once approved, shots could begin as soon as November. Yet some parents question if the vaccine is necessary for their kids and if there are other options available.

    Here to answer some of those questions is Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo. She's lead epidemiologist for the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Testing Insights initiative.

    Dr. Nuzzo, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    The Biden administration seems very optimistic that they're going to get this authorization, but between here and there, there's still a lot of scrutiny over these vaccines for kids. What kind of things are the FDA and CDC looking at?

    Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security: Sure.

    And I think it's important to stress that there still is a regulatory process that has to happen, and there are going to be independent panels of experts both convened by the CDC and the FDA to review the data. They're going to be looking at how children fared after receiving the vaccine from a safety perspective and they're actually going to be looking at certain levels of protection in the children's immune systems that would suggest that they are maybe protected if they are exposed to the virus.

    We don't have the same kind of monitoring for severe illness in children, like we did for adults, because children are less likely to experience severe illness, but they will look for some level of — that the vaccines offer for protection.

  • William Brangham:

    And you do hear that, the point that you're just making. Some parents and adults say, it looks like kids don't really get that sick, so why do I even need to consider vaccinating them?

  • Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo:

    Sure.

    And the truth is, the kind of risk/benefit calculation for children is different than adults. And it needs to be different than adults. And that's why it has to have a separate process to scrutinize the data separately from adults.

    It has been a blessing in this pandemic that our children have been largely spared the worst effects of COVID-19. But not all children have been, sadly. And so I know many parents, while the statistics of how many children wind up having severe illness may be low, that's not really comforting to parents not knowing if your child is going to be the exception, rather than the norm.

    So I think the vaccines are offering some hope to parents who are worried about that, but also they offer other benefits besides just preventing severe illness.

    I'm a mom of two young kids who are not yet able to be vaccinated. And I'm looking forward to these vaccines to hopefully return some of the normalcy to their lives and to reduce our worries about the likelihood of transmitting to others, to potentially enable us to travel more easily and without worry.

    So I think the benefits to kids are different than adults, and they have to be considered differently.

  • William Brangham:

    What do we know about side effects? And what should parents think about with regards to side effects?

  • Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo:

    So that's what's going to be evaluated by the committees.

    There's going to be first the consideration of the temporary side effects, the things that we tend to feel when you get vaccinated. Likely, they're going to be mild, just like we heard about the adult vaccines, arm soreness, mild sort of flu-like symptoms for a very short period of time.

    They're going to evaluate the frequency of that and how severe those side effects were. But then they're also going to consider what the other slightly longer side effects.

    Now, I have to stress that the other things that we'd be looking for, the things that we heard about as — surfacing as an issue with the vaccination of young adults, things like heart inflammation, those are reported within not just a day or two, but perhaps a week or so after vaccination.

    They're going to be looking to understand that. I don't think the trials are necessarily large enough to detect that, but they're going to assess what the likelihood of that occurring is, both given the fact that children are going to receive a different dose and the fact that they have different risk/benefit calculations.

    But I want to stress, because I think there's this misconception out there that somehow we expect that, months from now, or perhaps years from now, after vaccinating that side effects will manifest. And that's just not something that we expect to happen with vaccines. That's not really how vaccines work.

    So I just want to put parents at ease who may be worried that, if I choose to vaccinate my child, will years down the road something manifest? That's really not something that I see as being likely and, in my view, not something to particularly worry about.

  • William Brangham:

    So, let's say the approval does come, and kids start getting vaccinated. The question then becomes, do schools around the country start mandating this vaccine, like they do MMR, diphtheria, hepatitis B, et cetera?

    Do you think that will happen? Should that happen?

  • Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo:

    So, we're already seeing some places have conversations about it. And, certainly, that's been an active conversation in California.

    Los Angeles County, I believe, voted to mandate vaccines in their district. In my view, it's premature to be talking about mandates. Let's look at the data. Let's look at these vaccines. Let's understand how they work. And, crucially, let's talk to parents.

    We have so much more work to do to overcome parents' concerns about these vaccines. One of the worries that I have had is that we haven't really seen the level of uptake among teens, who are already eligible to be vaccinated, that we could see.

    And so you can imagine that the same concerns may exist for vaccinating even younger children. So I think we have a lot more work to do to address that residual hesitancy that may be there. And, in my view, conversations about mandates are really premature and possibly make those conversations even harder.

  • William Brangham:

    Separately, I just want to ask one question about this, the news of the day today, that the FDA seems that they're going to authorize the ability to so called mix and match, meaning, if you have got Pfizer, you could get a booster of Moderna or vice versa.

    What is the benefit of that? Why would anyone want to consider mixing and matching their vaccines?

  • Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo:

    Well, one benefit may just be convenience and just where you can go and what they have to offer you.

    But I think there may be some additional benefits in terms of enhanced protection from being exposed to a slightly different vaccine and challenging your immune system in different ways.

    I think this is probably a bigger issue for people who have received Johnson & Johnson and whether they would benefit from having a different second dose than their first dose.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo of Johns Hopkins, always great to have you.

    Thank you very much for being here.

  • Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo:

    Thanks for having me.

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