While Renee Goldschmidt’s three children, a 12-year-old and two 11-year-old kids, go to Sunday school in person at the Chabad of Owings Mills, they attend Franklin Middle School virtually because of the risk of COVID-19. Since the pandemic started, the Goldschmidt children have socialized only with their grandparents, outside of Sunday school.
Goldschmidt was eager for the day kids younger than 12 could start receiving COVID-19 vaccines. And that day has now come.
On Sept. 20, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that their vaccine was safe and effective for children ages 5 to 11. And on Sept. 28, the companies submitted their data to the Food and Drug Administration for initial review, indicating that they would soon likely seek emergency use authorization for the pediatric dose of their vaccine.
Although the Wall Street Journal reported that Pfizer might not finish its application until mid-October, the FDA reached its decision about approval on Wednesday, Nov.3.
Children ages 5 to 11 were approved to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Clinics in Baltimore County began offering the newly approved vaccine the following weekend.
That decision will no doubt be a relief to Goldschmidt and other parents who were anxious that waiting any longer could be harmful to their children.
“I just want them to come out with it already,” Goldschmidt, a homemaker who lives in Reisterstown, had said prior to Nov. 3. “My twins are starting middle school. It’s a huge thing, and they can’t socialize. And to be honest, I need my breaks. I literally have not had a break since the start of the pandemic, not one day.”
Goldschmidt’s 12-year-old son, Connor, has been vaccinated since the spring, when the Pfizer vaccine was authorized for his age group, but the family is particularly worried that he’ll spread the virus to one of the twins, who is immunocompromised.
“If Jacob gets a simple cold, we can end up in the ER,” Goldschmidt says. “One time he got strep, and his fever was so high he had a seizure. We had to call an ambulance.”
Goldschmidt was only 26 weeks pregnant when her twins were born, each weighing less than two pounds.
“The NICU doctors came in and said, ‘We don’t know if they’re going to make it. And if they do make it, they may face serious issues their whole lives.’ We have been pretty lucky,” she says.
But Goldschmidt doesn’t want to push that luck. As soon as the vaccine is authorized, she says, “we’re going.”
Kids Are Key to Controlling the Pandemic
The twins are among about 28 million children ages 5 to 11 in the United States who are now eligible, a group far greater in size than the 17 million ages 12 to 15 who became eligible in May. While most kids face a much lower risk of severe illness, inoculating them is an important tool in controlling the pandemic.
Yet inoculations have lagged among older children; only about 43% of children ages 12 to 15 in the United States had been fully vaccinated before Nov. 3, compared with 66% of adults, according to federal data. In Maryland, rates were higher; 63% of children in that age group were fully vaccinated, along with 73% of adults ages 18 to 64 and 96% of adults 65 and older.
So far, the Pfizer vaccine is the only one available to Americans younger than 18. In June, Moderna filed for authorization of its vaccine for adolescents ages 12 to 17. In July, Johnson & Johnson announced plans to begin studying its single-dose vaccine for that age group this fall.
Parents are slowly becoming more comfortable with the idea of their children getting vaccinated. In mid-September, around when schools reopened and hospitalizations and deaths soared due to the highly contagious delta variant, the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a nationally representative survey; 34% of parents interviewed said they would have their children ages 5 to 11 vaccinated as soon as possible, up from 26% in July.
Rates may prove higher in Baltimore. Compared to other jurisdictions in the “semi-urban, mid- and low-socioeconomic-status” cohort, the city has reported consistently higher vaccination coverage since June, according to a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analysis released in September.
“We have received 8,700 doses of the pediatric vaccine in our initial allocation for use as first and second doses,” said Baltimore County Health Officer Gregory Branch in a county news release on Nov. 3. “This latest approval by the FDA and the CDC helps bring us closer to protecting the entire family against COVID.”
Baltimore County has approximately 67,000 residents ages 5 to 11.
What Do Parents Think About the Vaccines?
Ilya Burdman, who works in cybersecurity, recalls how his parents suffered from COVID-19 during the summer of 2020, before the vaccine was available.
“They had to go through two weeks of pretty much not being able to get up. They had difficulty breathing, and I don’t want that experience for my children,” he says. “It’s something I would try to prevent as much as possible.
“The vaccine is very important to have,” he adds. “It’s extremely safe, and I think COVID will not be going away anytime soon.”
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been linked in rare cases, particularly among young men, to myocarditis, a condition that causes an inflammation of the heart muscle. However, concern about this side effect could be reduced by the lower doses that children will receive of the Pfizer vaccine. In Pfizer’s trials, the smaller doses produced similar antibody responses to those seen in a study of 16- to 25-year-old individuals who received full doses.
Some parents worry about the relatively small size of the trials and about a lack of long-term data on the safety of the shots. In general, parents tend to be skeptical of new vaccines. For example, while the varicella vaccine, which protects against chickenpox, was highly effective and showed few side effects, parents were hesitant to adopt it once the FDA approved it in 1995, with only one-third of eligible adolescents fully immunized by 2008.
Sharone Cheskis says her 13-year-old son, then 12, was among the first to get the vaccine when it was approved for his age group.
“He was bouncing off the walls excited,” she says. “It’s really made us feel more comfortable. He’s around a lot of other kids, so it’s important for us that he has that layer of protection.
“For our younger son,” who’s 9, “we’re going to do the exact same thing,” she adds. “Both my boys play sports. They’re in public school. We’re just around a lot of people.”
Cheskis is a speech-language pathologist at Prince George’s County Public Schools. She says that the pandemic has been hard for many of the kids whom she sees, as it has prevented them from talking with people outside of their families.
“There’s been a certain amount of drop in skill,” she says, adding that the vaccine would help “kids to get back to closer to where they were” before COVID-19.
Lucy Leibowitz, a pediatric psychologist, says it is “too soon” to say how the pandemic overall will impact children in the long term, since “we are still very much in it.”
She plans to vaccinate her 7-year-old child as soon as possible, which would bring “peace of mind” when visiting family. However, her 4-year-old child would remain ineligible.
“It would probably be similar to how things were when my husband and I got vaccinated,” she says. “It’s not drastically going to change what we’re doing.”
Leibowitz says changing public health guidelines and conditions can be confusing for kids.
“I took off my mask while talking to one of my kiddo’s friend’s parents at an outdoor play date, and my 7-year-old said, ‘Mom, put your mask back on,’” she says. “I explained, ‘We are both vaccinated. We are outside, and I made the determination that this is safe.’”
As the pandemic ebbs and flows, and as vaccines and more information become available, Leibowitz advises parents to be open with their children about their decisions about participating in certain activities.
“Rather than just saying ‘you have to do this,’” she says, “explain the reasons why you do this in kid-appropriate language.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times and the November 2021 issue of Baltimore’s Child. It has been updated to reflect the vaccine approval on Nov. 3.