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COVID vaccine rollout expected for children under 5 next week in Chicago

A girl holds her mother’s hand as she gets ready to receive her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine during a pediatric vaccine clinic at Martin Luther King, Jr. Senior High School in Detroit, Michigan,

COVID vaccines for children under 5 are expected to be available in Chicago through pediatricians, local health centers, and child care providers following federal approval.

Emily Elconin for Chalkbeat

Maria Paula Fitz has been waiting a long time for the COVID vaccine to be approved for children under 5. Her 2-year-old son is the last in her household to be inoculated and she sees it as a safety decision that will help her pandemic-weary family.

“He hasn’t been to preschool and he stays at home with our nanny,” Fitz said, “so it’s hard for him to just have a normal childhood.”

The mother, who lives in Evanston, said the vaccine will provide her family with some relief as her youngest attends preschool in the fall.

Fitz and other parents of children under 5 could be able to get their youngest family members vaccinated as soon as next week after the Food and Drug Administration authorized the vaccines by Modern and Pfizer on Friday. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must still approve the vaccines, which could happen within days.

Children under 5 are the last age group to become eligible for COVID vaccines. While only 3% of U.S. COVID cases were in children from 6 months to 4 years old, according to the FDA, case numbers shot up during the wave of the omicron variant. About 75% of children 11 and under showed evidence of previous infection in February, compared to 44% in December, according to the CDC. The rates of hospitalization in this age group also increased during the omicron wave.

In Chicago, officials expect the city to receive about 15,500 doses each of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, with future shipments based on uptake, according to Dr. Allison Arwady, the city’s health commissioner. There are 169,000 children younger than 5 in the city, Arwady said in her weekly online segment “Ask Arwady” earlier this month.

The Biden administration and local officials expect most children in the youngest age group to receive vaccines from their pediatrician or primary care doctor. Earlier this month, Arwady said the department of health has “done extensive training” for local pediatric providers.

At Esperanza Health Centers in Southwest Chicago, which pre-ordered the Pfizer vaccine, children younger than 5 will be able to get vaccinated in already established appointments or schedule appointments to get the vaccine, said Dr. Mark Minier, medical director of pediatrics and school-based health services. Three- and 4-year-olds will also be able to get vaccinated at smaller, scaled-back versions of a vaccination clinic currently in operation.

These children will be vaccinated in an environment with a medical provider because of their young age, Minier said. 

“While some of it is safety, we also realized that many of those kids need other vaccines that they’ve kind of gotten behind on during the COVID pandemic,” Minier said, “and we really want to use those opportunities to kind of check all of their vaccines to make sure they’re up to date.” 

Esperanza’s pop-up, temporary spaces for mass vaccination clinics in previous rollouts are no longer in use because of declining demand, he said. 

Some people may be suspicious because the vaccine for children under 5 took longer to come out and waning case numbers may have caused less appetite for the vaccine, Minier said. He encouraged people to talk to their health care providers for more information and said he trusts the regulatory process and agencies reviewing the vaccine.

“I’ve only had probably a handful of people specifically ask me about it,” Minier said. 

The families asking about the vaccine are typically those in families where everyone else is already vaccinated, he said.

It is uncertain how many eligible children will get vaccinated. Only 47% of children ages 5-11 in Chicago have gotten the first two doses of a COVID vaccine since approval for the age group in October, according to data provided by the city

A national poll by Kaiser Family Foundation conducted in April showed only 1 in 5 parents of children under 5 are planning on vaccinating their children right away. Thirty-eight percent of parents surveyed said they planned on waiting to vaccinate their children and 27% did not plan to vaccinate at all. 

The Carole Robertson Center for Learning, a local provider of child care and early childhood programming, has been preparing for the vaccine rollout by providing families with information in its weekly newsletter and by pointing them to Chicago Department of Public Health webinars, said Sangeeta Solshe, senior health manager at the center.

The center will likely host an informational town hall as it has done previously during the pandemic, said Solshe, who has also contacted local health officials in hopes of scheduling a vaccination clinic.

“Even with the vaccines being rolled out very soon, it will be a much longer time before there’s any real change in the number of children at our centers who have been vaccinated and who are fully vaccinated,” said Meg Helder, senior director of monitoring and support at the Carole Robertson Center, earlier this week. 

For now, policies will continue to be based on city health department guidance and case numbers in its child care facilities and Chicago, Helder and Solshe said. The center will encourage vaccination, but while there is a vaccine mandate for staff, there are no plans to do so for children.

Illinois health officials also announced earlier this week that they will support the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics in a campaign to get children under 5 vaccinated, which they had been preparing in anticipation of authorization. States were able to place orders on June 3, but no vaccines will be shipped until after federal approval, White House coronavirus response coordinator Ashish Jha said earlier this month

The Biden administration asked states to prioritize children with highest risk and in the most difficult to reach areas as well as sites that could handle large volumes of people, Jha said. The vaccines will also be available at community-based organizations and pharmacies, according to the administration.

An FDA assessment of Moderna’s vaccine, which will be administered in two doses four weeks apart for children from 6 months to 5 years old, found it to be 37% to 51% effective against symptomatic COVID. The FDA assessment of Pfizer’s vaccine, which will be distributed in three doses over the course of an 11-week period to children 6 months to 4 years old, found it to be about 80% effective. 

As a parent of a child younger than 5, Helder is excited about the vaccine rollout, but not all parents she has spoken to feel the same way.

“There’s definitely some parents similar to me who are, you know, thrilled,” Helder said. “But then, there’s a lot of people, and I’ve spoken to many, who are a little nervous about anything new for small children.”

Helder, on the other hand, is trying to figure out a way to get the first appointment available with her pediatrician.

Eileen Pomeroy is a reporting intern for Chalkbeat Chicago. Contact Eileen at epomeroy@chalkbeat.org.

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