The U.S. is expanding COVID-19 boosters as it confronts the omicron surge, with the Food and Drug Administration allowing extra Pfizer shots for children as young as 12.
Boosters already are recommended for everyone 16 and older, and federal regulators on Monday decided they’re also warranted for 12- to 15-year-olds once enough time has passed since their last dose.
But the move, coming as classes restart after the holidays, isn’t the final step. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must decide whether to recommend boosters for the younger teens. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC’s director, is expected to rule later this week.
The FDA also said everyone 12 and older eligible for a booster can get one as early as five months after their last dose rather than six months.
Vaccines still offer strong protection against serious illness from any type of COVID-19. But health authorities are urging everyone who’s eligible to get a booster dose for their best chance at avoiding milder breakthrough infections from the highly contagious omicron mutant.
Children tend to suffer less serious illness from COVID-19 than adults. But child hospitalizations are rising during the omicron wave — most of them unvaccinated.
During the week of Dec. 22-28, an average of 378 children 17 and under were admitted per day to hospitals with the coronavirus, a 66% increase from the week before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday. The previous high over the course of the pandemic was in early September, when child hospitalizations averaged 342 per day, the CDC said.
“That surge will increase dramatically over the next two weeks after the holidays,” UF Health pediatrician Jeffrey Goldhagen told News4JAX on Monday.
In Duval County, Baptist Health on Monday reported 108 COVID-19 patients across all five of its hospitals — seven of whom are in intensive care. Eight of the 108 patients are children at Wolfson Children’s Hospital. None of the eight children were in intensive care. For comparison, at the height of last summer’s peak, Wolfson Children’s Hospital had 21 COVID-19 patients at one point.
Goldhagen has one message for parents.
“There’s nothing more important at this point in time than for children from age 12 to 18 to be fully vaccinated, which now includes a booster,” Goldhagen said.
Liz Evans, a mother of three, has all of her children vaccinated.
“My 13-year-old will be eligible for her booster, and we’ll be doing that, as well,” Evans told News4JAX.
Evans said she is trusting in her pediatrician with her children’s health.
“Trust the people that have been taking care of your children all this time,” she said. “There’s no reason in my eyes to not trust them when it comes to this vaccine and concerns about COVID when I’ve trusted them with everything else.”
The vaccine made by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech is the only U.S. option for children of any age. About 13.5 million 12- to 17-year-olds — just over half that age group — have received two Pfizer shots, according to the CDC.
For families hoping to keep their children as protected as possible, the booster age limit raised questions.
The older teens, 16- and 17-year-olds, became eligible for boosters in early December. But original vaccinations opened for the younger teens, those 12 to 15, back in May. That means those first in line in the spring, potentially millions, are about as many months past their last dose as the slightly older teens.
As for even younger children, kid-size doses for 5- to 11-year-olds rolled out more recently, in November — and experts say healthy youngsters should be protected after their second dose for a while. But the FDA also said Monday that if children that young have severely weakened immune systems, they will be allowed a third dose 28 days after their second. That’s the same third-dose timing already recommended for immune-compromised teens and adults.
Pfizer is studying its vaccine, in even smaller doses, for children younger than 5.
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