COVID-19 Vaccine and Kids: What Parents Should Know

The pediatrician-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian Komansky Children’s Hospital shares what parents need to know about getting their kids vaccinated.

photo of kid getting the COVID-19 vaccine

With the COVID-19 vaccine already available for children as young as age 5, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have now also authorized and recommended a booster shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to adolescents ages 12 to 15. Amid the current surge in COVID-19 cases and the spread of the Omicron variant, the FDA has also:

  • Shortened the time between the completion of a primary two-dose vaccination of the Pfizer COVID-19 mRNA vaccine and a booster dose to at least five months.
  • Recommended a third primary series dose for certain immunocompromised children 5 through 11 years of age.

Health Matters spoke with Dr. Sallie Permar, pediatrician-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian Komansky Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine, on what parents need to know about vaccinating their kids.

Dr. Sallie Permar

Dr. Sallie Permar

Health Matters: Why is it important for kids to get the vaccine, especially as we face a new wave of COVID-19 cases?
Dr. Permar: Around this time last year, COVID-19 vaccines were not yet widely available to the general public, and adults made up most of the serious COVID cases in the country. Now we’re seeing that cases may be more common in children because fewer of them are vaccinated compared to adults. With the current wave, we have also seen an increase in the number of kids being hospitalized with COVID. The symptoms are serious enough to be admitted to the hospital, which is an indication that this is not just a disease of adults.

The vaccine is so much safer than getting the virus itself. Giving your child the vaccine keeps them safer than letting them get infected with this virus without any immunity from a vaccine.

Why were booster shots recommended for children ages 12 to 15?
Health authorities found a single booster dose for this age group was safe and provided continued protection against COVID-19. The FDA reviewed real-world data from Israel, which included more than 6,300 individuals ages 12 to 15 years who received a booster dose of the vaccine at least five months following completion of the primary vaccination series. The study showed that the benefits of the booster in this population outweighed any risks. Also, there were no new safety concerns following a booster, including no reported cases of myocarditis or pericarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle or outer lining of the heart).

What population of children ages 5 to 11 are eligible for a third shot?
For that age group, children who have undergone solid organ transplantation or have conditions that cause a similar immunocompromised status are authorized to get a third Pfizer shot. That’s because two shots may not provide adequate protection for this population. Children 5 through 11 years of age who are fully vaccinated and are not immunocompromised are not recommended to receive a third dose at this time, but the FDA will continue to review information.

Are there any underlying conditions where kids shouldn’t be vaccinated?
Most people — including children — with underlying medical conditions can receive the vaccine. This includes things like weakened immune systems and autoimmune diseases.

In cases of severe allergic reactions — like anaphylaxis — after the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the CDC states that you should not get the second dose. These reactions are very rare and can be treated during the observation period after the vaccine. An ingredient of the mRNA vaccines that has been implicated in the very rare severe allergic reactions is a common component of many pharmaceuticals called polyethylene glycol, the main ingredient of the common constipation treatment MiraLAX. If you’re unsure about a vaccine for your child, speak with your doctor about your concerns.

“We now have the opportunity to give kids their lives back through the gift of vaccine immunity.”

— Dr. Sallie Permar

What side effects are children experiencing from the vaccine?
The side effects of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in 5- to 15-year-olds are no worse than those of adults. Reactions include soreness in the arm where you got your shot, fatigue, muscle pain, and sometimes a fever. They generally resolve after a day. This indicates the immune system is responding to the vaccine. It is a small price for going back to hanging out with friends without fear of bringing a deadly virus home.

How can parents talk to children about the vaccine and its side effects?
Be honest with your children. Explain to them that while the shot may pinch or sting for a brief moment, it won’t hurt for long, and it helps protect them from getting sick. Remind them that they may feel some mild symptoms for a short time after, but those will go away too, and it’s a sign that their immune system is working. Pain relievers like Tylenol or ibuprofen can be used if needed to help them through it. Help them to see that vaccines are a good thing and they keep us safe.

Could the vaccine cause future infertility in children?
This is a false claim, as there is no data that shows the COVID-19 vaccine can cause infertility, or any biological reason why we would suspect that it would. Moreover, the mRNA vaccines are short-lived in your body and do not integrate with your DNA.

Is it safe for children to continue going to school?
We know so much more about how to keep our children safe, and we also learned how devastating it is to keep children out of school, so I think we should use all the tools we have to try to keep kids in school. That means vaccinating all kids who are eligible, testing for COVID-19, wearing masks, and practicing good hygiene, including regular hand-washing and social distancing.

What would you say to parents who are still anxious about their kids receiving a COVID-19 vaccine?
I would tell them that the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks of a COVID-19 infection. As pediatricians, we have cared for children who required lifesaving measures due to the infection, and some who didn’t make it. We have witnessed the rise of a new postinfectious inflammatory disease, multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), which primarily affects children and can result in long-term cardiovascular disease and even death.

Those who did not become sick still stand to be its most impacted long-term victims. They lost family members to COVID, they lost touch with their friends, they only saw teachers on screens, and their anxiety and depression grew to epidemic levels. We now have the opportunity to give them their lives back through the gift of vaccine immunity.

Sallie Permar, M.D., Ph.D., helms the pediatrics enterprise at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian/Komansky Children’s Hospital. She is also the Nancy C. Paduano Professor of Pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine. Board-certified in pediatrics and pediatric infectious disease, Dr. Permar has been honored with several prestigious awards, including the 2014 Young Investigator Award and the 2020 E. Mead Johnson Award from the Society for Pediatric Research, the Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering, and most recently the Gale and Ira Drukier Prize in Children’s Health Research from Weill Cornell Medicine.