Parents, We're Here To Help! Answers To Your COVID Vaccine Questions : Short Wave Now that the Pfizer COVID vaccine is authorized for children five to eleven years old, a lot of parents are deliberating about what to do next. NPR health policy correspondent Selena Simmons-Duffin answers your questions about vaccine safety for kids, shedding masks at school and how soon you can schedule that long awaited indoor playdate.

Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.

Parents, We're Here To Help! Answers To Your COVID Vaccine Questions

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EMILY KWONG, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

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KWONG: ...From NPR.

Hi, SHORT WAVE. It's Emily Kwong. We are here to talk about the COVID vaccine for kids, like these kids getting their shots in southeast D.C.

CLAY ANDERS: I'm excited. And since when my sister got vaccinated, I've been waiting for them to approve the COVID vaccine for 5 to 11. She's been hanging out with her friends a lot. And after I get vaccinated, I'll be able to hang out with my friends in other spaces because I'll be vaccinated.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm excited to get back to normal. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Agreed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: And I'm excited not to wear this mask.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I did not like this mask.

KWONG: Shoutout to these kids. I mean, now that the vaccines are approved for children 5 to 11 years old, there are a lot of parents that are deliberating about whether or not to book an appointment, like, tomorrow, or they have questions. So to get some answers, here's Selena Simmons-Duffin, a health policy correspondent for NPR. Hello, Selena.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Emily.

KWONG: You have been reporting on this pandemic a lot.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yes.

KWONG: You also have a kid in school. Where are you with all this?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, we got my 6-year-old vaccinated two days after she became eligible.

KWONG: All right.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She was so excited. We drove out to the suburbs to a pharmacy in a grocery store and, you know, hung out looking at snacks. And when her name was called, she kind of freaked out and almost ran out of the store. So I had to wrestle her down for the shot. But then she was really pleased with herself and showing off her Band-Aid to everyone and decorating it. And, you know, it was all good.

KWONG: Nice parenting. Good job.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.

KWONG: Have you talked to other parents about all this?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Oh, yeah. I mean, it's pretty much all parents are talking about right now.

KWONG: Like the block chat.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Exactly, right. And a lot of parents I'm talking to are right there with me, excited, booking their appointments and running out and doing it. I have talked to parents who are less sure, though. There's one woman on my block. She says she's just been inundated with confusing information, and she didn't understand how mRNA vaccines work. And it's understandable. I mean, it's one thing to get yourself vaccinated. And for some parents, it feels a little scary to get your little kid vaccinated. So these questions are absolutely understandable, and they're answerable, too.

KWONG: Absolutely. Well, I'm really glad you're here 'cause today on the show, we will answer parents' questions about the vaccine, including questions that you, the listeners, sent us. This is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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KWONG: OK, Selena Simmons-Duffin, you have been talking to doctors and parents and kids. Share the knowledge. Like, some of the basics we know. Kids can get COVID-19. They can spread it. So getting them vaccinated is a good idea.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right.

KWONG: But a lot of parents still have questions. So I'm in our inbox. Here's a question from one of our listeners.

MAYA WANNAN: Hi, SHORT WAVE. My name is Maya Wannan (ph), and I'm calling from Sydney, Australia. I have two kids, a 9-year-old and a 5-year-old, who are very different sizes. My son is about twice the size and height and weight as my daughter. And I was wondering how the COVID vaccine could be just as effective and safe for my smaller, 5-year-old child as it is for my 9-year-old.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: This is such a good question. I think the reason why this feels kind of funny to parents is because mostly what we're giving our kids is, like, Advil or Tylenol. And you're looking at the label, and you're figuring out the dose based on the weight of your kid.

But vaccines don't work like that. The job of the vaccine is to kick off a big immune response. It doesn't have to be a lot of vaccine to kick that into motion, and especially in kids that have really feisty immune systems. So Pfizer, in its clinical trial, did research to find just the right dose for this age group. They landed on this 10-microgram vaccine, which is a third of the dose given to teenagers and adults, because it kicked off this impressive, you know, really big immune response that gave that protection without a lot of side effects.

KWONG: Got it. OK. So for those parents who still have questions and concerns, can they just wait a bit to see how vaccinations go before vaccinating their kid?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So my colleague Allison Aubrey and I made a bunch of calls to pediatricians to ask this question. You know, when should parents wait? When should they go ahead?

KWONG: Yeah.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: A hundred percent of the pediatricians we called said do not wait.

KWONG: Really?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Like, regardless of your situation.

KWONG: OK.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: One pediatrician I talked with called it a race against time. Cases are actually quite high right now across the country. The way she put it is you're either going to get COVID or you're going to get the vaccine. And although most kids don't get very sick, and that's been, you know, widely discussed, some get very sick, and it is impossible to predict which ones are going to be unlucky and get seriously ill with COVID-19. And so those are the reasons why pediatricians say, do not wait; just go ahead and get your kid vaccinated.

KWONG: Right. So take some of the uncertainty away, meaning the uncertainty around how COVID could affect your kid. I mean, here's a question from a listener about kids at higher risk.

JEN BOGGS: Hi. My name is Jen Boggs (ph), calling from Portland, Maine. I have a loved one who's 11 years old, and she was just diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. And I'm wondering, how important is it that she get the COVID vaccine?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: It's so important. I would say do not wait. The reason is that kids with certain conditions, including diabetes, but also obesity, chronic respiratory conditions, kidney disease, high blood pressure - all of those kids are at higher risk of getting seriously ill if they do get COVID-19. So I think pediatricians would advise your 11-year-old loved one to run, not walk to get vaccinated.

And I should also mention that for families with babies at home or grandparents or other vulnerable people, an immunocompromised family member, vaccinating young kids will help keep those people safe. And with the holidays coming up, when kids will see these grandparents, potentially, and younger family members who are also more vulnerable, this is an important time to make sure you get vaccinated.

KWONG: Selena, what about side effects? We've talked about effectiveness. This is the other side of it. We've heard about, like, heart problems. So what do we know about side effects?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah. So in the clinical trial that Pfizer did with this age group...

KWONG: Yeah.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: ...There were very few side effects - like, strikingly few side effects.

KWONG: OK.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: In fact, there wasn't even much fever or chills among kids. It was just, you know, pain at the injection site, some fatigue, maybe headaches or muscle pain. I should say my 6-year-old had nothing. She was, like, cartwheeling around, like, the day she got her shot. So that was...

KWONG: She did it.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: ...Great, yeah. But you mentioned heart problems, right? Like, there are serious side effects that people might be worried about. And one of the big ones that we've heard about in respect to these mRNA vaccines, like the Pfizer vaccine, is myocarditis, and that is inflammation of the heart muscle. In Pfizer's clinical trial for 5- to 11-year-olds, there were no cases of myocarditis, although the company acknowledged that the trials weren't really big enough to pick up such rare events. It's very rare. It has been seen in older age groups, and it's mostly among men around 16 to 19 years old after vaccination. Just stressing again, it's very, very rare. It's usually short-lived. In most instances, adolescents who've developed myocarditis have improved quickly. Usually, you know, they just take some Advil, and it goes away.

KWONG: OK.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And another point that people make in relation to myocarditis is that it can also occur after bacterial and viral infections, including COVID-19. And so, you know, when you're thinking about trying to protect your child from this risk, weigh the fact that if they got COVID-19, there could be heart complications with that infection as you consider what the potential side effects of the vaccine might be.

KWONG: And this is something you could, again, talk about with your pediatrician, right?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Of course, yeah. I mean, talking to a trusted health professional is always a good idea if you have questions. I should say that pediatricians are being really inundated right now as they kind of kick off this vaccination campaign, so it might take a minute for them to get back to you. But, you know, definitely make that effort to have that conversation so that you get to a place where you feel comfortable.

KWONG: Yeah. So what if you say, OK, kiddo, it's time for a vaccine, and they're like, Mom, I'm actually used to wearing a mask; can't I just rely on that? You know, can parents just use masks for prevention?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, I don't know of any kids who are like, let me wear my masks, please, more.

KWONG: I guess I'm hanging out with some specific kids, but go on.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah. Well, it does give you that sense of protection, for sure. But I should say that, you know, as good as masks are, as important as they are, masking cannot go on forever, especially in schools. And as cases do drop across the country - we're hoping they're really going to head down as vaccinations head up - mask mandates might start to be lifted, which could increase the likelihood that an unvaccinated kid could be vulnerable to COVID-19.

KWONG: That makes sense. OK. We're moving in a maskless direction, so it's good to get vaccinated.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, hopefully.

KWONG: Yeah. Here are some questions about the future we're headed towards.

LAURA SCHWARTZ: Hi. My name is Laura Schwartz (ph), and I'm from Wheaton, Md. I'm a longtime listener, and the show really helped me get through the early months of a pandemic with a newborn. She is now almost 2, and my question is what the outlook for vaccines for kids under 5 looks like. We've spent her entire life being cautious, masking up, never taking her to indoor public places. She's never seen a grocery store or a Target. But we want to get her vaccinated as well as soon as we can. When might that be?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So I asked Pfizer this question because it's a good one. It's an important one. And parents really want to know this. What Pfizer told me is they're hoping to have data from their clinical trial of 2- to 5-year-olds by the end of the year. So once they have that data, it's going to take maybe a couple more weeks to get it submitted to FDA and to then get that regulatory process underway. But if her child is almost 2, that's kind of good news for her because that seems to be the next age cohort that is going to be eligible for vaccination. Younger babies - it's going to probably be after that, so still more waiting. And then the other vaccines are further behind Pfizer. So I think the short answer is a couple of months from now, it could be that we start to see this regulatory process go through for 2- to 5-year-olds.

KWONG: OK. Well, you know, I'm just thinking about how with this new vaccine, things might change in kids' lives, I mean, at school, at parties, on playgrounds. Here's another listener question about that.

AMANDA FLETCHER: This is Amanda Fletcher (ph) from Suwanee, Ga. My 6-year-old daughter, Violet (ph), will be getting her first shot soon. She's been wearing a mask to school every day. And I wondered when we can shed the masks. I also wondered about play dates - if it'd be safe for her to have a maskless indoor play date once her vaccine has fully kicked in.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Oh, my gosh. I mean, is this ever the question?

KWONG: This is the question.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: This is the question. It is a question on my mind, too. I also have a 6-year-old, and she's just got her first shot. And I think that the answer about schools and the answer about play dates are different. So when it comes to schools, everyone I've been talking to say do not expect schools that have masking in place to be changing those rules anytime soon.

But play dates are a bit different because it's a smaller group. If you're sure of everybody's vaccination status - I should say two weeks out from the second shot is considered fully vaccinated - I would say that maskless indoor playdates this winter should be OK. Obviously depends on the level of comfort of your family and the family of the child who's, you know, coming for the play date. But I think that the winter is looking a little brighter in my mind for this reason, for having my older child vaccinated and starting to think about, like, a less lonely winter than we had last year.

KWONG: I love how the drive to hang with friends is, like, pushing all - people of all ages to get the shot, you know?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Absolutely. That is the thing. That is the thing we need.

KWONG: We miss each other.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: We miss each other.

KWONG: We do.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: We need hugs.

KWONG: We need to see each other's mouths.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Totally.

KWONG: Selena, thank you so much for coming on the show. Like, let us know how it goes with your 6-year-old and the second shot. I want to hear about that.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, whether she bolts again. We'll see.

KWONG: A very special thanks to Danny Hensel, Clay Anders, Ryan (ph) and Grace Ewy (ph) and to all of you who sent in your questions. You have taught all of us a lot, so thanks for taking the time.

This episode was produced by Brit Hanson and edited by Sara Sarasohn. Margaret Cirino checked the facts. I'm Emily Kwong.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I'm Selena Simmons-Duffin.

KWONG: Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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