More than 20% of Illinoisans are fully vaccinated and able to resume some normal activities, but people with young children may be waiting a little bit longer.
None of the authorized vaccine providers in the U.S. are approved for use in people younger than 16, but Pfizer on Friday requested authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for adolescents between 12 and 15.
The trials for younger children, though, have just begun and are still months from such a request. Experts estimate that the vaccines may not be authorized for them until late this year or early 2022.
Though children are at lower risk of contracting COVID-19 infections and becoming seriously ill, they can infect more vulnerable people. They are also essential to reaching herd immunity because some adults cannot or choose not to become vaccinated, doctors say.
And though the proportion of children who die after contracting the virus is a fraction of a percent, more than 250 children under 18 have died of the virus. There have also been more than 3,000 reported cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a serious condition that has mostly impacted children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Vaccinating children is absolutely essential,” said Dr. Elaine Rosenfeld, pediatric infectious disease specialist for Advocate Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn.
Pfizer began a clinical trial for children 12 to 17 last July, and said last week that the trials showed the vaccine was safe and effective in that age group. In March, the company began testing the dosage — the first step before more widely testing the effectiveness — on children 6 months to 11 years old, according to the company.
Moderna also announced in March that the first trial participants between 6 months and 11 have been dosed. Johnson & Johnson said earlier this month that it started including adolescents 12 and older in trials.
The American Academy of Pediatrics last year called on the manufacturers to not delay in starting trials for children, writing in a statement that “if we do not add children to these research trials very soon, there will be a significant delay in when children are able to access potentially lifesaving vaccines.”
Once the correct dosage is ascertained, the trials for effectiveness will look at the antibody response in children, somewhat differing from adult trials that compared incidents of the virus, because children are less likely to contract the virus, and the virus will not be circulating as widely as more people become vaccinated.
But with vaccine authorization still months away, many parents are wondering how to act now, as the city and state lessen restrictions.
The CDC has guidelines for people who are fully vaccinated, but offers little on the nuance of families who are partially vaccinated.
“I think technically it probably could come down to your risk aversion,” said Dr. Taylor Heald-Sargent, assistant professor in pediatric infectious diseases at Northwestern University and Lurie Children’s Hospital, adding that whether children have health conditions is a factor too.
Still, doctors offered some guidelines for families and said there is hope for a more normal summer.
Parents and children may be able to gather with another family of vaccinated adults at lower risk, if there are no extenuating circumstances, like preexisting conditions, they said. And Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said vaccinated grandparents can hug their unvaccinated grandchildren.
Outdoor playdates at playgrounds also may be low risk, but doctors said children should abide by CDC masking and social distancing guidelines while in public.
“You never know if a child undergoing cancer treatment is at the playground,” Heald-Sargent said.
On whether to take vacations that involve flying, Heald-Sargent suggested first looking at options within driving distance.
“The most recent recommendation that fully vaccinated adults can travel is a little bit difficult when you talk about families with young children because the children aren’t vaccinated,” said Dr. Anita Chandra-Puri, a pediatrician at Northwestern and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “They still can spread it to other people who are not vaccinated and still susceptible. We still want to be cautious.”
The biggest priority with children, though, doctors said, is making it safe for them to learn. The American Academy of Pediatrics has said schools can open in person under certain guidelines, but in Chicago the issue remains a point of contention between Chicago Public Schools and the teachers union.
“Whatever we can do to keep the schools open, that’s really important,” Chandra-Puri said.
Doctors also said summer programming like camps appear poised to open with safety precautions.
“Children have been very adaptable to wearing masks,” Chandra-Puri said. “Young children don’t know anything different than this. It’s the way they’ve been doing things for a year.”