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Vaccines for children under 5 a turning point for many US families
04:14 - Source: CNN

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Washington CNN  — 

More than 800 days into the Covid-19 pandemic, 17 million US kids are finally eligible for vaccination.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, signed off on vaccinations for children under 5 this weekend, clearing the way for shots to be administered soon. Vaccine advisers to the CDC had voted unanimously on Saturday in support of recommending the two-dose Moderna and three-dose Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines to children as young as 6 months.

The long-awaited development is both a triumph and a curiosity to many. The prospect of more protection for more people is, of course, good news. But consider the following:

  • People over 16 have been vaccine eligible for 18 months.
  • Children ages 12 to 15 have been vaccine eligible for 13 months.
  • Children ages 5 to 11 have been vaccine eligible for seven months.

What took so long? While the vaccines have brought life closer to normalcy for much for the US, until now the parents of young children have been stuck in a waiting game.

Kids have a lower risk of serious outcomes from Covid-19 infections compared with elderly or immunocompromised adults. But about 1% of children who catch Covid-19 will be hospitalized. Infections can also lead to long-term consequences in children as they do in adults, increasing the risk for diabetes, autoimmune disease and a delayed reaction to infection called multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which requires hospital care.

And while the Covid-19 vaccines have been proved to be safe and protective in millions of people, scientists can’t just extrapolate that out to younger children.

In a trial involving kids, scientists start the research by essentially making their best educated guess on what dose would be safe and generate an immune response to protect the child from getting Covid-19. This takes time, and all along the way there’s an evaluation of the data to make sure there are no concerns about the safety of the product.

Pfizer’s decision to extend its vaccine trial in younger children and test a three-dose regimen also delayed its initial application to the US Food and Drug Administration for authorization of its vaccine for children younger than 5.

What should parents know? Put simply, the long vaccine trials should give parents not pause, but reassurance.

Take it from CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She is also the author of “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health” and the mother of two children under 5.

Here’s what Wen told CNN’s Katia Hetter: I believe that all parents want the best for their children. My best advice is to talk to your pediatrician, whom you trust with other aspects of guidance for your children’s health. Personally, I feel very reassured by the thorough and careful process taken by our federal regulatory agencies and can’t wait to give my kids a safe vaccine that helps to protect them from the coronavirus.

Children 5 to 11 were the most recent group to become eligible for vaccination, last November. But less than 30% of these kids are fully vaccinated with their two-dose primary series in the US, according to the CDC, compared with about:

  • 60% of adolescents 12 to 17.
  • 64% of adults 18 to 24.
  • 67% of adults 25 to 39.
  • 75% of adults 40 to 49.
  • 82% of adults 50 to 64.
  • 94% of adults 65 to 74.
  • 88% of adults 75 and older.

A survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation published in early May pointed to even more hesitance when it comes to the parents of younger kids. Just 18% of the parents of children under 5 said they would vaccinate their child against Covid-19 as soon as a vaccine became available.

RELATED: What are the Covid-19 vaccine side effects in young kids? Experts seek to ease parents’ concerns

Nearly 40% of those surveyed said they would “wait and see” before vaccinating their young children, 11% said they would get the vaccine for their kids only if required and 27% said they would “definitely not” get the Covid-19 vaccination for their children.

The political layer. President Joe Biden praised the CDC’s decision to recommend the vaccines on Saturday, calling it a “monumental step forward” in a statement. “For parents all over the country, this is a day of relief and celebration,” the President said.

Not everyone is on the same page.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, spent time last week defending his state’s decision not to preorder vaccines for children under 5.

“There’s not going to be any state programs that are going to be trying to, you know, get Covid jabs to infants and toddlers and newborns,” DeSantis, a Republican, said at a news conference in South Florida. “That’s not something that we think is appropriate, and so that’s not where we’re going to be utilizing our resources in that regard.”

Doctors in Florida can still order vaccines themselves, but DeSantis’ posture has vaulted the topic of childhood vaccination into political fight, with the state’s children bearing the brunt. In a statement, Florida Democratic Party spokesperson Kobie Christian said DeSantis was “using children’s safety as a political prop.”

“Every other governor in the country – Republicans and Democrats alike – has taken measures to ensure this vaccine is available to children,” Christian said in a statement. He added that it’s “one thing” for DeSantis and Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo “to choose not to vaccinate their own children, but for them to deprive parents in Florida of that option isn’t only irresponsible, it’s cruel.”

What we can learn from kids. In a world where adults have navigated the global pandemic response, it’s important to listen to the children affected by their decisions. More than 202,000 US children have lost one or both parents to Covid-19, according to estimates from Imperial College London. And the number of children robbed of their parents keeps growing.

CNN’s Holly Yan spoke with some children who have lost young parents about what they want people to know. Their responses are well worth listening to.

Connor Luensman, 17, wants everyone – even children – to understand the importance of getting vaccinated against Covid-19. “It’s not just about you,” he said. “It’s about protecting everyone else.”

Laila Dominguez, 13, wants people – especially the bullies at her school – to know about the threat Covid-19 can pose to everyone. “What I wish they knew about Covid is how dangerous it is … and be more aware of what they say,” she said.

Jessica Barrios, also 13, stressed that Covid-19 is “not just a bad flu.”

“It’s affecting not just older people; it’s affecting kids, too,” she said. “People need to start taking this seriously and do their part to help try and calm down this virus.”

CNN’s Steve Contorno, Jacqueline Howard and Jen Christensen contributed to this report.