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COVID vaccines are finally available for children under 5

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The wait is over for millions of parents with young children. The CDC over the weekend gave the green light to a rollout of COVID vaccines for babies, toddlers and preschoolers. About a third of parents in this age group say they are eager to get the shots as soon as they can. But others aren't sure and have questions about whether their children really need to be vaccinated. NPR's Allison Aubrey has been talking to pediatricians around the country. And she's with us now. Good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So Allison, are pediatricians ready to get all these shots into lots of little arms?

AUBREY: Yes. Nearly 20 million young children are now newly eligible, including babies six months and up. And pediatricians have been anticipating this, Leila. Shipments of the lower-dose vaccines made specifically for this age group have already begun. I spoke to a pediatrician in Cincinnati, Dr. Nicole Baldwin (ph), who told me her practice is ready to go. Parents who want to will be able to bring their children in just for the COVID shot.

NICOLE BALDWIN: What I anticipate is that in the beginning, there is going to be a mad rush. There are going to be a lot of parents that have been waiting. And they're going to come in right off the bat. And then, I think, it's going to dwindle pretty quickly.

AUBREY: Pediatricians will offer COVID vaccines when children come in for well visits, a time when other vaccines are given, also during other routine visits. Though, pediatricians do recognize many parents may want to wait.

FADEL: So they're ready for the eager parents. Is there harm, though...

AUBREY: That's right.

FADEL: ...In hesitant parents waiting a bit longer rather than...

AUBREY: You know - yeah.

FADEL: ...Getting children vaccinated right away?

AUBREY: It's going to take a while to get full protection from these vaccines. For the Pfizer vaccine, kids will be given three shots. The first two are spaced three weeks apart. A third shot is eight weeks later. I spoke to Dr. Ashish Jha. He's the Biden administration's COVID response coordinator. He says vaccinating this age group will take time. But there is an advantage to doing it as soon as possible.

ASHISH JHA: I am very sympathetic to parents who want a little more time. But the bottom line is there's a very contagious variant out there. There's a lot of infections. And we're, like, two to three months away from school beginning again. Given how much time it takes to build up immunity, that's not that far away.

AUBREY: Now, the shots will be available in a lot of places in addition to pediatricians' offices. Vaccines are also being shipped to community health centers, to children's hospitals. Some pharmacies - for instance, CVS - plans to administer vaccines to children 18 months and older at its MinuteClinic locations.

FADEL: OK, so lots of supply. But it does seem, looking at public opinion polls, that there are parents who aren't convinced that their young children need the vaccine.

AUBREY: Well, pediatricians tell me what they hear from some parents is, you know, oh, COVID is so mild in kids. And Dr. Nicole Baldwin's response is, yes. For most kids, it is mild. But more than 400 children under the age of 5 have died from COVID. That's according to the CDC. And Dr. Baldwin shares what she has seen in her own practice, which is some kids with lingering symptoms even after a mild infection, such as fatigue and other conditions.

BALDWIN: I'm seeing some kids with some chronic respiratory, like cough and breathing issues. I'm seeing kids with just that kind of brain fog. I know a lot of adults are describing it, too, but my adolescents - where they're just not able to focus as well. So of course, everything - you know, it's anecdotal what I'm seeing in the office. But it's a real thing.

AUBREY: Bottom line, she says the benefits of getting vaccinated far outweigh any risks. And what's been seen in older age groups is the unvaccinated are 10 times more likely to die from COVID than the vaccinated.

FADEL: OK. So two vaccines are authorized, Moderna and Pfizer. Well, parents have a choice?

AUBREY: Some pediatricians tell me, for now, they're only going to offer one or the other just to simplify administration.

FADEL: OK.

AUBREY: So parents should not be surprised if they don't have a choice, at least not in their pediatrician's office, right now. But the FDA says both are safe and effective. I spoke to Dr. Bill Muller. He's a pediatrician at Northwestern and Lurie Children's Hospital. He says he understands some parents may prefer the Moderna vaccine because it's only two shots. But he says that will likely change.

BILL MULLER: The expectation for most people in the field is that both vaccines will ultimately be a three-dose series as an initial series. So I don't know that I would necessarily hang my hat on two doses and you're done, because as we've experienced with older children and adults, booster doses seem to be necessary to - after about six months or so to continue to provide protection.

AUBREY: So that's the expectation, that there will be a third shot for Moderna as well.

FADEL: So now that COVID vaccines are authorized for all age groups, will schools consider requiring them just like they do vaccines for other serious ailments?

AUBREY: That is a decision that is made at the state level and sometimes at the district level. A few states have talked about vaccine requirements for students, including Louisiana and California, but not now, not while there's still only emergency authorization. California officials announced some time ago that full approval of vaccine by the FDA was a precondition to start a regulatory process for a COVID vaccine requirement for students who are in school. Now, Dr. Muller says that there was discussion at the FDA advisory committee meeting about school mandates.

MULLER: There was a lot of, I think, sentiment against requiring the vaccine. And so I would actually tend to sort of fall on that side. I think we should try to send the message of why it's important rather than sending a message of, you have to get it.

AUBREY: Given how polarizing mandates have become, I think that there's a recognition in many states that, you know, school requirements could create a lot of controversy and that, perhaps, the better way for now, at least, as Dr. Muller says, is to educate people about the benefits.

FADEL: OK. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.