More than two years after the pandemic began, even the youngest Alaskans are now eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Last week, two vaccines — one each from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech — were granted emergency use authorizations from the Food and Drug Administration. That allowed states, including Alaska, to begin pre-ordering doses from the federal government. Moderna’s vaccine is authorized for children 6 months through 5 years old, while Pfizer’s is for children 6 months through 4 years old.
As of Wednesday, the first doses of vaccines approved for babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers had arrived and were getting sent out to providers around the state. Officials with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services say they ordered a similar number of doses as they did for children ages 5 to 11.
Officials say that while the vaccine is still free and widely available, parents may need to take some extra steps to find an appointment — likely at a pediatrician’s office — rather than relying on larger clinics, vaccine pop-up events or pharmacies.
One Anchorage physician, Dr. Monique Child with Polar Pediatrics, said many Alaskan children don’t have an established relationship with a pediatrician, which could make it harder for parents to access shots. Child said she’ll vaccinate children whose families are having a difficult time finding an appointment, but in general she will mostly be serving established patients.
A recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nationally, just one in five parents of children younger than 5 planned to get their kids vaccinated right away, while many more said they planned to wait and see, were reluctant or would “definitely not” be vaccinating their children.
Here what you need to know about getting this youngest group of children vaccinated.
Where can kids get vaccinated? How do parents sign up for an appointment?
Most vaccine appointments for very young children and babies will need to made with primary care providers and pediatricians, said Dr. Lisa Rabinowitz, a staff physician with the state Division of Public Health.
Pharmacies can vaccinate children 3 and older, and some communities around the state may be offering public clinics. Many of those public clinics will be posted online at vaccines.gov, a federal website that allows users to search by ZIP code for providers offering COVID-19 vaccines near them. People looking for help finding a provider can call a state COVID-19 helpline at 1-800-478-2221.
The Anchorage Health Department has no specific plans for public clinics in the municipality, a spokesman said Wednesday. Some pediatrician offices reached Wednesday said they were still waiting for their pre-ordered doses to arrive, or had just placed orders.
A physician with Ptarmigan Pediatrics in Wasilla said Tuesday that her office had been fielding “quite a few calls” regarding vaccinating their young children, and that so far, interest from parents seemed comparable to the previously eligible age group.
Don’t kids typically have mild cases of COVID-19?
Rabinowitz said serious illness from COVID-19 is still a risk for very young children and the safety profiles from both vaccines look good.
“A lot of kids do have mild symptoms when they get COVID, but we still know that it has a huge impact on even the youngest age group,” she said.
There have been over 2 million cases of the virus nationally among children 6 months to 4 years old, and of those who were hospitalized, half had no underlying medical conditions, according to the CDC.
In babies, COVID is the No. 4 cause of death nationally, and the fifth leading cause of death for children 1 to 4 years old, Rabinowitz said.
In Alaska, 23 children have had cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C, after recent COVID-19 infections, including some who ended up in the pediatric intensive care unit with severe complications, according to the state health department.
“A lot of those kids got really sick after getting a COVID infection,” Rabinowitz said. “So it does still affect our youngest Alaskans.”
In clinical trials, vaccine side effects for young children included irritability, decreased appetite, pain at the injection site, headache and muscle pain. Most were mild.
Is it still free to get the vaccine, even without health insurance?
Yes. Although federal programs that pay for tests and vaccines for the uninsured have begun to wind down, COVID-19 vaccines are still being purchased by the federal government and continue to be free, said Rabinowitz.
Some clinics may charge an administration fee for those with insurance, so parents should double check clinics on a case-by-case basis, she added.
Which vaccine should kids get?
Rabinowitz said that while she did not recommend one over the other, Moderna and Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccines for children have different properties and characteristics that parents should consider.
Pfizer’s vaccine is a three-dose primary series while Moderna’s has just two. In clinical trials, Pfizer showed a somewhat higher efficacy rate. As far as side effects go, “they’re pretty similar,” though Moderna had a slightly higher fever rate in the youngest age group, she said.
Children whose parents choose Moderna will need to their second dose four to eight weeks after their first. For Pfizer, the second dose is three to eight weeks after the first, and the third dose is at least two months after the second.
Generally, public health officials recommend people stick with the same brand for their primary series when at all possible. No booster shots have yet been approved for this age range.
The CDC also recommends that if children move from a younger age group to an older age group during the primary series or between the primary series, they should receive the vaccine product and dosage for the older age group for all future doses.