WASHINGTON — Coronavirus vaccines could become available to children under the age of 5 within days, potentially providing relief to millions of parents who have not been able to vaccinate their children since the vaccination effort began in late 2020.
“We have waited a long time for this moment,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, head of the White House pandemic response team, at a news conference on Thursday. “We are on the cusp of safe, highly effective vaccines for children under the age of 5.”
The vaccines have yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which the agency expects to do next week. Moderna and Pfizer have both submitted data showing that their vaccines are safe and effective against the coronavirus. If the FDA approves the vaccines, a panel from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will meet late next week, a senior government official told reporters at a news conference Wednesday night.
If both agencies offer their authorization, “it would be a historic milestone in the country’s fight against the virus,” the senior government official told reporters. “It would mean that almost every American would now be eligible for the protection that vaccination offers.”
Monday, June 20, marks Juneteenth, a new federal holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. (The holiday itself is June 19, which happens to fall on a Sunday this year.) The Biden administration expects vaccination for children under 5 to begin on Tuesday, June 21.
“Vaccinations will be available in several trusted locations, but we know that many families will actually turn to their pediatricians and primary care physicians,” the senior administration official said. “And we are ready to support those frontline providers.”
At the press conference the following day, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said a public information campaign would highlight the safety and efficacy of childhood vaccination. The campaign would involve superheroes, he said, without specifying which ones.
The federal government has been criticized for the delay in authorizing vaccines for young children, but Jha and others have defended the process as one that adheres to rigorous science that parents can rely on. Misinformation has plagued the country’s pandemic response from the start, and the wider issue of childhood vaccination has been the prey of disinformation campaigns for decades.
“What we’re going to do in this vaccination effort is to build on all the lessons we’ve learned over the past 18 months,” Murthy said.
Childhood vaccination rates have remained relatively flat, with moderate uptake: 59.6% of adolescents ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC; the proportion drops to 29.3% for children between the ages of 5 and 12.
Serious and fatal cases of COVID-19 among young children are very rare, but have been recorded. According to the CDC, 442 children under the age of 5 have died from the disease. Still, the vaccine could provide an extra layer of security if families travel throughout the summer and when children return to schools and health care facilities next fall.
Murthy, who has two young children, has often invoked his own experience as a parent to reassure others. The surgeon general did that again on Thursday. “It’s a step worth taking,” he said of childhood vaccination, putting a hand to his heart. “That’s why I vaccinated my 5-year-old. Therefore, if a vaccine is available for children under 5, I will line up with my 4-year-old to have her vaccinated as well.”