A COVID-19 vaccine for younger children in the U.S. took another step this week toward availability, and it could be distributed as soon as early November.
That means Alaskans ages 5 to 11 could soon start receiving two child-sized doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine if regulators determine its safety and effectiveness. As a result, providers around Alaska are making plans for the potential arrival of the vaccine for younger children.
That effort will likely look different than the initial vaccine rollout earlier this year, which featured larger vaccination clinics. Instead, the kids’ vaccine rollout will involve smaller, more diverse efforts, said Dr. Mishelle Nace, a state staff physician and pediatrician for Foundation Health Partners in Fairbanks.
“Kids aren’t just little adults,” Nace said. “They come with a whole set of new challenges.”
For that reason, vaccinating in a pediatrician’s office may be more comfortable for families and children, which is important, Nace said. Having a trusted provider give out information and administer the vaccination boosts confidence in the vaccine, she said.
Vaccinating younger children could play an important role in reducing transmission of the virus because, despite their generally mild experiences with the virus, children can still spread it just as adults can, health officials say.
In Alaska, 13,615 children age 10 and under made up 10.4% of all COVID-19 cases but only 1% of hospitalized cases as of Tuesday.
While children infected with the virus are less likely to be symptomatic compared to adults, infection rates between adults and children tend to mirror each other, state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said.
“If you see high infection rates in adults, you’re going to see high infection rates in kids,” he said.
Since children are able to spread the virus to others — especially if they’re symptomatic — the more who are vaccinated and have immunity to the virus, the less likely transmission will be, McLaughlin said.
On Tuesday, an advisory committee to the federal Food and Drug Administration voted to recommend the vaccine for youths ages 5 to 11, and the agency is expected to grant the doses emergency authorization soon.
A group of outside advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to recommend use guidelines for the shots on Nov. 2. Following that and approval from the CDC’s director, the shots could be available as soon as that week, the Washington Post reported.
“As pediatricians, we do vaccines all the time,” said Dr. Michelle Laufer, a pediatrician at Medical Park Family Care in Anchorage.
She said administering the COVID-19 vaccine likely won’t be that different, though the practice will reach out to families to set appointments since doses have to be used in a certain time frame before they expire. Laufer said she’s hoping it will also provide an opportunity to catch up kids on vaccines they may have missed during the last year and a half.
The attitudes toward the shot among patient families tend to vary and seem to reflect the wide range of viewpoints in Anchorage and the rest of the country, Laufer said.
“We have those people who are very anxious to get it,” Laufer said. “And then we have parents who aren’t even vaccinated themselves and won’t be vaccinating their children.”
Laufer and clinic staff gathered in a small, bright yellow pediatric room to discuss the vaccine rollout Tuesday. They went through several points: where to store the doses, how to schedule appointments and stickers — which they planned to order for children who got the vaccine, because kids love stickers.
Robert Barr, Juneau’s deputy city manager, said they’re assuming the vaccine approval process will be complete in the next few days and they’ll host pediatric vaccination clinics the week of Nov. 8.
While previous mass vaccination clinics have been at Centennial Hall, the convention center in Juneau, Barr said officials decided to host clinics for the upcoming youngest age groups in schools instead.
“We expect a school setting will be a little more comfortable. We’ll be able to use classrooms, maybe sorts of spaces that kids are more familiar with,” he said.
They’re also intending to staff those clinics with vaccinators who are familiar with vaccinating children.
Tanana Chiefs Conference, which serves communities in Interior Alaska, is planning to send charter flights to rural communities once the vaccine is approved, similar to what the organization has done for adult boosters and kids ages 12 and older, according to Jacoline Bergstrom, executive director of health services.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., which serves communities covering a wide swath of a primarily roadless region in Western Alaska, has planned a town hall on Nov. 4 to discuss the CDC’s final recommendations and will have more plans to share afterward, said Mary Horgan, a spokesperson for the health care organization.
The Anchorage School District is planning on holding clinics similar to their initial vaccination efforts at the district’s education center, spokeswoman Lisa Miller said. The district is aiming to provide weekend and evening clinics for convenience, and those clinics will be open to anyone age 5 or older, she said.
It wasn’t clear how the Anchorage Health Department would be rolling out vaccinations for children. A spokesman for Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson said by email Tuesday that the department was “waiting for final direction from the CDC and FDA,” and that “it’s premature to talk about something that hasn’t been approved yet.”