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Adolescents and the COVID-19 vaccine: What you need to know

Updated May 16, 2021 - 1:54 pm

Kids 12 to 15 can now receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in Nevada after health regulators last week authorized its use for the age group.

Since December, the two-dose Pfizer vaccine has been authorized for emergency use in people ages 16 and older in the U.S. With the expansion of this authorization, more than 177,000 younger Nevadans are eligible to be vaccinated.

While some parents are eager to get their children vaccinated, viewing it as a step toward pre-pandemic normalcy, others are concerned about potential side effects and are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Family and urgent care physician Dr. Bayo Curry-Winchell said she understands why.

“It’s your loved one, it’s your most precious being,” said Curry-Winchell, medical director for Saint Mary’s Medical Group in Reno.

An advocate for COVID-19 vaccination, she encourages parents to contact their children’s health care providers with questions and to review online resources such as nvcovidfighter.org.

For parents and guardians considering vaccination for their adolescents, here are some key questions and their answers:

Is the vaccine effective in kids?

Clinical trials of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in 40,000 adults last year showed it to be 95 percent effective against COVID-19, meaning that it protects 19 out of 20 people from illness with symptoms.

More recent clinical trials in the 12 to 15 group have shown the vaccine to be highly effective in adolescents. The shot elicited an even stronger immune system response in this group than it did in 16- to 25-year-olds.

In one trial of 2,260 adolescents, participants were given either two doses of the vaccine or a saltwater placebo. Results showed 18 members of the placebo group developed symptomatic coronavirus infections, but no cases were reported among those who received the vaccine, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This indicates that those who got the vaccine were strongly protected against the virus.

Is the vaccine safe? What are its side effects?

Public health authorities and federal regulators describe the vaccine as both effective and safe.

The potential side effects of the Pfizer vaccine in this age group are similar to those in other age groups.

Most commonly reported in the adolescent clinical trial participants were pain at the injection site, tiredness, headache, chills, muscle pain, fever and joint pain, according to the FDA. The side effects typically last one to three days. Some people experience no side effects.

The vaccine should not be given to anyone with a known history of a severe allergic reaction to any component of the vaccine. Rare serious side effects, including anaphylaxis — which though treatable can be life-threatening — have been reported.

Other rare side effects may not be uncovered during clinical trials. Regulators continue to monitor for such side effects, which are required to be reported.

In authorizing the vaccine for adolescents, the federal agency said that “the known and potential benefits of this vaccine in individuals 12 years of age and older outweigh the known and potential risks.”

Why get a shot if most kids don’t get very sick from the virus?

Most children who catch the virus won’t get very sick from it. That doesn’t mean that some kids won’t become seriously ill.

In Clark County, children 5 to 17 represent about 10 percent of reported COVID-19 cases and 1 percent of hospitalizations. Four children have died, representing about 0.1 percent of the county’s deaths from the disease, or 1 out of 1,000, according to data from the Southern Nevada Health District.

Sixty-four children in Clark County have been diagnosed with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a serious illness linked to COVID-19 that causes inflammation in multiple organs.

But with more adults getting vaccinated, children have become “a new target for the virus,” said Karissa Loper, a bureau chief with the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services. Children now account for more than one-fifth of new coronavirus cases, as opposed to 3 percent a year ago, she said at a recent news briefing, citing a statistic from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Kids also can spread the virus. “Younger people may not be as likely to get severely ill, but it is still a risk, and they can spread the virus to others who may be more at risk for complications from the illness,” Dr. Fermin Leguen, district health officer, said in a news release.

Getting children vaccinated also moves a community closer to “herd immunity,” where enough people have natural protection against a disease to prevent it from spreading easily. Even without achieving herd immunity, as more people become vaccinated, the level of disease in a community drops.

Will Nevada schools require COVID-19 vaccination for K-12?

Clark County schools Superintendent Jesus Jara said in a Facebook forum with parents that he doubted COVID-19 vaccination would be required for public school students but that such a decision would be made at the state level.

A spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services said the agency will not require vaccination of K-12 students at this time.

“Required vaccination for students will be discussed further, but at this time the state will not be requiring COVID-19 vaccination,” representative Shannon Litz said in an email.

A Southern Nevada Health District representative said it was unlikely that vaccination would become mandatory for Clark County students before the vaccine had full approval from the FDA, and not simply emergency use authorization.

“This makes it very unlikely that the vaccine could be mandatory for Clark County students, since it does not have a full approval status from the FDA and such action may trigger legal challenges for school authorities,” representative Stephanie Bethel said.

Pfizer has requested full approval of its COVID-19 vaccine from the FDA, a review process that is expected to take months.

When can younger kids get vaccinated?

Vaccinating younger children probably will have to wait until at least the fall.

Pfizer has said that by September, it expects to request authorization for use of the vaccine in children 2 to 12. By the end of the year, it expects to request authorization be expanded to babies as young as 6 months old.

Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, which developed the other two vaccines authorized in the U.S., also are testing their vaccines in children.

How can I get my child vaccinated?

Adolescents can get vaccinated at existing health district and partner sites in Clark County that administer the Pfizer vaccine. Those under the age of 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian, according to the health district’s web site.

To register for appointments, visit snhd.info/covid-vaccine.

Area pharmacies and some doctor’s offices also will be offering the Pfizer vaccine to this age group. More information on vaccination sites, including which pharmacies carry the Pfizer vaccine, can be found at nvcovidfighter.org.

For help in making an appointment, call 1-800-401-0946.

COVID-19 vaccinations are provided free of charge.

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

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