WATERTOWN — Amid the rise and height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, from March 1, 2020, through April 30, 2021, about 1.5 million COVID-19 cases in individuals 11 to 17 years of age were reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the CDC expanded the emergency use authorization for the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine to adolescents ages 12 to 15, so children between 12 and 15 who are at high risk may now be offered this vaccine alongside other priority groups.
“What I tell my patients who ask me questions like, ‘Will you vaccinate your own children?’ I say when it is recommended by the CDC to do so, I will have no hesitation about that,” Samaritan pediatrician Dr. Joseph C. Gianfagna said. “I tell them, very simply, ‘I didn’t do this research, I’m a pediatrician, and I have to trust just as everyone else has to trust the governmental bodies that make these rules,’ and these are very thoroughly vetted positions that they come up with.
“They are studied ad nauseam so that we are protected as a country and for me to say that I know more than they know is just inaccurate,” he added. “When it is recommended, absolutely I will immunize my own children and recommend that people immunize their own children as well as soon as they’re eligible for their age group.”
Although COVID-19 in children is usually milder than in adults, some kids can get very sick and have complications or long-lasting symptoms that affect their health and well-being and the virus can cause death in children — although this is rarer than for adults. Like adults, children also can transmit the coronavirus to others if they are infected, even when no symptoms are present.
Acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock has previously stated that the FDA’s expansion of the emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to include adolescents 12 through 15 years of age is a significant step in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, which will allow for a younger population to be protected from COVID-19, bringing us closer to returning to a sense of normalcy and to ending the pandemic.
She said parents and guardians can rest assured that the agency undertook a rigorous and thorough review of all available data, as it has with all of its COVID-19 vaccine emergency use authorizations.
Current safety and efficacy testing of the vaccines for children ages 2 and up may lead to authorization of one or more of the COVID-19 vaccines for younger kids in the months ahead. In the meantime, health organizations maintain that it is important for children to continue to have all recommended childhood vaccines.
“There’s still disease out there, it’s not completely gone, so it makes sense for the most number of people possible to get vaccinated,” Dr. Gianfagna said. “The first thing you can do to protect your kids is to get the vaccine yourself. If you’re hesitant about the vaccine for any reason, please discuss it with your own physician and not rely on information you might see on social media or from other people whose information may not be quite as clear or accurate as it needs to be.”
Dr. Gianfagna said he and his colleagues are seeing a problem with hesitancy in some areas, especially among the adolescent population, because people have read information that maybe is not as accurate as it could be.
He continues to tell parents and patients if they are at all concerned to keep following the same strategies of good hand washing, staying 6 feet apart, taking extra measures to avoid being in big groups, cocooning and all the other hygiene items that everyone has been doing for a year and a half.
Recently, when it was reported that 70% of New Yorkers had been vaccinated, the state lifted restrictions. As schools have let out, summer camps are beginning and the state has started to return to somewhat of a normal summer.
Even so, parents of younger children are left with the question of how to keep them healthy and safe while they have yet to be vaccinated.
Dr. Kristen Navarette, Albany-based pediatrician and medical director at MVP Health Care, has released four strategies for protecting unvaccinated children: Practice cocooning, frequent testing, continuing to wear a mask and staying within your pod.
Cocooning is a strategy to protect vulnerable populations not yet vaccinated from an infectious disease by surrounding them with people who are to help limit transmission and ensure the safety of families and vulnerable children.
Frequent testing has played a critical role in identifying safety and risk factors of communities. Now, testing remains a vital component in safely reopening places like schools and camps and easing anxiety for parents of young children across the country. Although COVID-19 vaccines are effective, scientists are still learning how well vaccines prevent the spreading of the virus to others, even if a person does not have symptoms. If a child is not vaccinated yet, Dr. Navarette recommends continuing to have the child wear a mask when going places.
Over the past year, people created COVID pods — a strategy to stay safe while socializing during the pandemic. If a family is within a pod, Dr. Navarette recommends continuing to spend time with only those individuals to help limit the spread of germs from person to person.
Dr. Gianfagna has been a pediatrician with Samaritan Medical Center since 2013 and agrees with Dr. Navarette’s strategies to protect children currently ineligible for the COVID vaccine.
He noted that when there is doubt at all about the vaccination status or disease status of those around you, it still makes plenty of sense to wear masks when possible. It is generally recommended that children ages 2 and up wear masks as it is not usually feasible in kids under that age.
He made the point that COVID-19 is a virus and viruses are not static, they are dynamic and change, which is the reason people get a flu shot each year — the flu vaccine that we have this year is different than what we had last year. While it may be true that COVID is currently prevented by the vaccines out right now, the same may not be true in December or January of next year, he said, when we may have waning immunity or new variants such as the delta variant from India that are not susceptible to these vaccines.
The way to mitigate that is to follow the advice of the CDC and get a vaccine when eligible, he said.
If a child is sick with something that looks like a respiratory infection, there really is not any way to tell whether it is the regular cold rhinovirus or COVID, so if a child is sick, parents are encouraged to seek medical care and testing even if they maybe would not have done so in pre-pandemic times.
Do not just assume that it is a cold, because there is no way to tell without doing an actual test, Dr. Gianfagna said, because the symptoms overlap so commonly with other viruses.
“It still makes sense to be cautious and not take unnecessary risks, choose low-risk activities, especially in summertime when the temptation is to get together and spend time with our friends,” Dr. Gianfagna said. “We’re all experiencing pandemic fatigue, but it makes sense to continue to be cautious as much as possible.”