It’s been a tough year for families due to COVID-19. We’ve juggled homeschool and virtual work, seen beloved routines collapse and childhood rites of passage canceled. We’ve watched friends and loved ones struggle with the virus and even lose their lives, lose jobs and shutter businesses. We’ve taught our children to embrace masks, while fretting over whether to send them to school or allow friends and family to visit.
New vaccines promise a return to normalcy, but many questions remain, especially for parents since the vaccines have not been tested yet on children.
Are they safe? Who can get them? Where?
Dr. Joseph Eisenberg, chair of the department of epidemiology at University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, helps us navigate what we need to know.
What are the differences between vaccines?
Two vaccines are currently authorized and recommended by the CDC. The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine requires two doses, with an interval of 21 days between. The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine also requires two shots, 28 days apart.
Three more vaccines, by AstraZeneca, Janssen and Novavax, are in the works.
Are kids eligible for the COVID vaccine?
No. At least, not yet. Children’s immune systems are very different from adults’, so the research that’s been done on the COVID-19 vaccine for ages 16 and up needs to be repeated in younger children. Both Pfizer and Moderna have reportedly begun clinical trials on children as young as 12. If they are successful, the data will need to go through FDA review, followed by production and distribution. Experts agree the soonest children will start receiving the vaccine is late this summer.
“Since studies have not been done on kids, it’s not approved for kids,” Eisenberg says. “The initial motivation rolling out the vaccine is to protect the most vulnerable.”
Can teenagers 16 and up get the vaccine?
Yes and no. The vaccines are approved for ages 16 and up, but under current emergency use authorizations, they will only be given to teenagers with high-risk conditions, such as severely compromised immune systems. Not a lot of 16-year-olds fit this bill.
For now, with limited supplies, vaccines are reserved for those who need it most — anyone 65 and older, and frontline essential workers, including health care professionals, teachers, childcare workers and more.
Are children at risk of COVID?
Children can catch COVID-19 and pass it along without experiencing severe symptoms themselves.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, evidence suggests half of children who acquire COVID-19 are asymptomatic and hospitalization rates for children are low. Still, they can carry high viral loads and not even know it, running the risk of infecting those around them.
“Kids are the vectors,” Eisenberg says. “They’re the ones transmitting it, not necessarily getting a serious disease.”
Do the vaccines contain live COVID-19 virus?
No. They are Messenger RNA vaccines, which teach our bodies how to make a protein that triggers an immune response. In the case of COVID-19, vaccines isolate a “spike protein” found on the surface of the virus.
According to the CDC, when the vaccine is injected into the muscle of the upper arm, our cells use mRNA instructions to make the protein, then break down and destroy the instructions. Our immune system recognizes the foreign protein and begins building an immune response by making antibodies. After that, when and if our cells encounter COVID-19’s spike protein, they know what to do.
The vaccine development process was so rushed. Are mRNA vaccines too new to be safe?
Actually, mRNA vaccines have been studied since the late 1980s, so the technology used to create the COVID-19 vaccines is not new. mRNA vaccines have been used before in other trials, they just haven’t worked.
The good news is they work really well with COVID.
mRNA vaccines don’t take as long to develop and produce as vaccines containing live virus, which require growing pathogens in huge cell farms, then purifying, modifying and extracting material. Not so with mRNA vaccines, which is how they were rolled out in less than one year.
Are there side effects?
You may feel pain and swelling in the arm where you get the shot. As your body builds protection, you may experience flu-like symptoms that are reportedly worse after the second dose. Fever, chills, fatigue and headache might even affect your ability to do daily activities but should subside in a few days. Be sure to schedule your second shot even if you experience side effects, unless your doctor advises against it.
More serious side effects have been reported by people with severe allergies in rare cases. “There are a few slight indications that people who have some severe allergies go into anaphylactic shock,” Eisenberg says. “If you are concerned about this, tell your provider. When you get the shot, stay in the clinic for 10-20 minutes to make sure there’s no reaction.”
Since my kids have to wait for the vaccine, what should we do in the meantime?
Continue to use the precautions we’ve all learned so well — wash hands frequently, use hand sanitizer, wear masks in public spaces, practice social distancing. Stay home if you are unwell and make sure you are comfortable with the safety protocols your school has in place.
Should I keep my child out of school until they get the vaccine?
No. Kids do not need to be vaccinated in order to safely go back to school.
“I would say we can operate schools safely in a way that it’s low risk,” Eisenberg says. “Evidence is that transmission is occurring in large social gatherings where essential workers are really close and have proximity to a lot of people.”
With the variants now found in Michigan and elsewhere, there’s lots of talk about double masking. Is that recommended?
If you already are using a good mask, like an N95, double masking is likely not necessary. If you are in a low-risk setting, for example outside and social distancing, it is also probably not necessary. In high-risk settings, like indoor venues, especially for those using lower quality face coverings, double masking is probably not a bad idea, but currently there is little data to provide a fully informed answer on this issue.
If parents and grandparents are vaccinated, can they still give COVID to kids?
We don’t know if the grandparents who are vaccinated can give it to the grandkids, Eisenberg says, but the more important point is that the grandparents, if vaccinated, are protected against severe disease.
My child can’t get vaccinated yet, but should I?
Yes. As teachers, family members and adults surrounding your children are vaccinated, transmission rates will decrease. Each individual who gets the vaccine is contributing to all of us getting back to normal life.
“It’s worthwhile for everyone to get the vaccine when it’s their turn,” Eisenberg says.
The exception is if you’ve recently had COVID, wait 90 days, because technically you already have immunity.
I can’t wait to get the vaccine. How do I get in line?
There is a limited supply of vaccines in the U.S., but supply will increase in the weeks and months to come. The goal, according to the CDC, is for everyone to have easy access to a vaccine as soon as possible, at doctors’ offices, drug stores, hospitals and health centers.
Visit the Michigan Department of Public Health and Human Services to find and register at a location near you.