(ATLANTA) — With a COVID vaccine for younger children given the final go-ahead, millions more Americans as young as 5 years old can now roll up their sleeves for the protection the shot affords: dramatically reducing the risk of developing COVID-19.
For many, that will also mean protection from long COVID — sometimes-debilitating symptoms that can last for months after a COVID-19 diagnosis.
Kate Porter’s daughter Adria was 11 when they both came down with an awful fever, fatigue and malaise in March 2020, before there was a vaccine for anyone. They both have grappled with ongoing symptoms since.
“If she could have been prevented from going through what we went through, I think it would have saved us a lot of hardship and pain and emotional, just anguish and worrying. I would have gotten her vaccinated immediately,” Porter said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s final signoff late Tuesday paved the way for pediatric doses of the Pfizer vaccine to begin rolling out to thousands of hospitals, family doctors’ offices and major retail pharmacies across the country. It comes as the academic year kicks into higher gear and just in time to punctuate the holiday season.
“So many of my friends are just breathing a sigh of relief. They have been waiting for this,” Ann Wallace said. Her daughter Molly was 16 when she came down with COVID. Molly has grappled with recurring bouts of chronic fatigue ever since.
“Whether they are 8 or 18, long-hauler symptoms is a real struggle, especially for those in school,” Wallace said. “It takes an enormous toll.”
In discussing whether to recommend Pfizer for younger age groups, federal health officials have emphatically pointed not only to the overwhelming benefits of the vaccine, but also to the sobering risks of not making the shot available to vulnerable kids.
“There’s a lot of attention to the vaccine and not as much to the danger of COVID and what it can do,” said Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers. “And that’s a really important piece.”
“As a parent, if I had young children this age group, I would get them vaccinated now,” acting Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Janet Woodcock said Friday. “I would not want to take the risk that they would be one of the ones who would develop long COVID.”
“We can include not only the known benefit of the prevention of COVID cases … but many broader benefits — prevention of hospitalizations, MIS-C and deaths — as well as the prevention of additional post-COVID conditions,” CDC’s Sara Oliver said at Tuesday’s meeting recommending the shot.
More than 1 million children were diagnosed with COVID in the past six weeks, adding to the total of more than 6 million children who have tested positive since the start of the pandemic, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Of the 1.9 million kids aged 5 to 11 who have gotten COVID, 8,300 wound up hospitalized.
Estimates vary, but studies in adults suggest that 10% to as many as a third of COVID-19 patients go on to develop long-term symptoms.
While vaccinations will help prevent many cases of COVID-19 — and therefore save many children from developing long-haul symptoms — scientists still aren’t sure if getting vaccinated will heal children already living with long COVID.
Molly, now 18, never expected to have symptoms this long. But more than a year after being infected she still struggles with chronic fatigue, and uses an inhaler.
“People are like, ‘Oh, I’ll get better, it’ll be fine.’ But there’s a wide range of ways that COVID can affect you,” she said.
Porter, meanwhile, was concerned how her daughter’s long-hauler symptoms might be impacted by taking the vaccine. But she now plans to get Adria vaccinated in the coming weeks.
“I feel like the last two years were stolen from us,” Porter said. “I feel like she should still be 11. And I should still be 34.”
Terri King’s daughter, Haley, was 9 in November 2020 when her fever began to spike, along with a sore throat, cough, headache and loss of taste and smell. She felt like her mouth was constantly numb and burning, King said. A year later, Haley has a persistent hypersensitivity to noise that interferes with her daily life. King has been hesitant to get Haley vaccinated, though.
Before data was available on Pfizer’s pediatric vaccine, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll suggested that roughly a third of parents of children ages 5 to 11 wanted to “wait and see.” Public health officials are hoping the FDA and CDC’s public review of all available data and strong endorsement will encourage more parents to seek vaccination for their younger children.
“I waiver back and forth, and you tend to get pulled in both directions,” King said. She’s now leaning toward getting Haley vaccinated by the end of the year.
“I know this is what needs to happen for my kids,” King said. “It’s just getting to that point where I’m completely comfortable with having it done. But we’re ready to get back to — and obviously, we know, it’s not going to be the same normal that it used to be — but, you know, back to some kind of normality. We’re ready to start out a new year, new and protected.”
ABC News’ Sony Salzman and Eric M. Strauss contributed to this report.
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