CDC Recommends COVID Vaccines for Kids Under 5—Here's When Shots Could Go in Little Arms

Some 20 million children are now eligible for the vaccines, which could be available as soon as Tuesday.

A child receives a dose of Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine at an event launching school vaccinations in Los Angeles, California on November 5, 2021
Photo: Frederic J. Brown / Getty Images

Fact checked on June 17, 2022 by Vivianna Shields, a journalist and fact-checker with experience in health and wellness publishing.

Parents' long wait for COVID-19 vaccines for young children is over. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Saturday recommended the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines for children as young as 6 months.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, endorsed the recommendation of its advisory panel that all children 6 months through 5 years of age receive the shots. The decision makes nearly 20 million additional children eligible for COVID-19 vaccination.

"We know millions of parents and caregivers are eager to get their young children vaccinated, and will today's decision, they can," Dr. Walensky said in a statement. "Children in this younger age group can be vaccinated with whichever vaccine in available for (either Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech)."

The US Food and Drug Administration on Friday granted emergency use of the vaccines for children in this young age group. Moderna's lower-dose pediatric vaccine is for use in children 6 months through 5 years of age. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, also administered in a lower dose, is authorized for kids 6 months through 4 years of age.

"As we have seen with older age groups, we expect that the vaccines for younger children will provide protection from the most severe outcomes of COVID-19, such as hospitalization and death," FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, MD, said in a statement. Based on its review, the agency determined that the known and potential benefits of the vaccines outweigh the known and potential risks.

Here's what to know about the vaccines, their possible side effects, and when they will be available.

Vaccine Availability Timeline

The White House previously said it expects vaccinations for younger children to begin next week.

Now that the CDC has signed off, the vaccines could be ready to be given to children as early as this Tuesday, June 21. (Monday, June 20, is a federal holiday, which may pose a small delay in the administration of shots, since some places where vaccines are administered may be closed.)

What Are the COVID-19 Vaccine Options for Children Under Age 5?

A decision on vaccines for this age group has been a long time coming. Many parents have been anxiously awaiting the day that a COVID-19 vaccine would be available for young children. To date, there hadn't been any COVID-19 vaccines for these youngest of Americans. Now, based on FDA and CDC reviews of their safety and efficacy in infants and young children, there are two options.

Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine for infants and children 6 months through 5 years of age consists of two shots given four weeks apart. Each dose is a quarter of what is given to an adult.

Pfizer's vaccine for infants and children 6 months through 4 years of age is a three-shot series. Children would get the first two doses three weeks apart. A third dose would be given after two months. Each dose is one-tenth of the adult dose.

How Effective Are the Vaccines?

Evidence from clinical trials of the two vaccines show that the kids' COVID-19 vaccines are effective in priming the body to fight the infection.

"What we saw from both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines is that they are able to produce antibody responses that are similar to the antibody responses that we saw in adults," Jennifer Nayak, MD, associate professor of pediatric infectious disease at the University of Rochester Medical Center, told Health.

While children's risk of severe disease from COVID-19 is less than that of adults, they're not immune to the virus. "In the height of the Omicron wave, we still saw a lot of children who were being hospitalized," Dr. Nayak said. "And the vaccines are the best protection that we have against that."

That doesn't mean kids who are vaccinated won't catch COVID at all. Like in adults, the amount of protection these vaccines provide has waned over time as new variants and subvariants of the disease have emerged. "Your child still could get COVID, but they'll be less sick," she said.

"Prevention is really the way to go," Hayley Altman Gans, MD, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University Medical Center, and a member of the FDA advisory committee that reviewed the data, said during a June 15 meeting. Not only are the options for treating young kids with COVID very limited, the immune response from vaccination versus COVID infection is different. With infection comes viral replication and tissue invasion and damage, said Dr. Gans. "Getting an immune response without that should be an option for individuals so that they don't have to suffer from the actual viral disease."

Safety and Side Effects

Overall, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were well tolerated, said Dr. Nayak, who was involved in clinical trials of each vaccine. "For both vaccines, we saw in kids, who can describe it, injection site pain, and that's something that you definitely can expect. That was the most commonly reported adverse event," she said.

"Rates of fever were a little bit higher in these younger kids, although high fever was rare," Dr. Nayak added. And while it's possible that your child may spike a fever after getting a shot, William Schaffner, MD, professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, said these vaccines don't produce any more fever, by and large, than other childhood vaccines.

Myocarditis, a heart-related side effect seen in rare instances in young adults and late adolescents, especially males, was not observed in infants or children in the vaccine trials. And because "the risk goes down" with age, it's anticipated that such events will be "even less of a problem" in this younger age group, Dr. Schaffner told Health.

"The important thing," said Dr. Nayak, "is that the vaccines have been shown in this age group to be safe. And COVID occasionally can be a severe disease even in younger children."

What's the Demand for Kids' COVID Shots?

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey in April suggests that there may be an initial surge in demand, with about one in five parents of children under 5 saying they plan to get their kids vaxxed "right away."

Thirty-eight percent want to wait and see how other young children fare before getting their own child vaccinated.

The survey also revealed significant vaccine reluctance: Twenty-seven percent said they will "definitely not" get their child vaccinated, and another 11% said they'd do so only if school or daycare required it.

Where to Get Kids' COVID Shots

Depending on where you live, your local pharmacy may or may not be authorized under state law to administer the shots to young children. Pharmacists are likely to play a substantially lesser role in vaccinating the very youngest children than they did adults and adolescents, said Dr. Schaffner.

Doctors say your best bet is to contact your family practitioner or pediatrician's office. Some state health departments and local clinics are preparing to help get shots in arms, Dr. Schaffner added.

The CDC added that parents can visit vaccines.gov to find out where COVID vaccines for children are available.

Bottom line: Dr. Nayak said the vaccines may provide parents some peace of mind knowing their child has some protection. "In terms of social interaction, in terms of getting their kids out and about and back into activities, especially for parents and daycare, I think this could be a game changer."

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