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COVID vaccines for kids could make parents feel safer about schools, Charlotte doctor says

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CDC
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Soon, parents will be able to get their children between the ages of 5 and 11 vaccinated against COVID-19. North Carolina Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen last week urged parents to do so.

"And I will say as a mom of a 7- and a 9-year-old who is currently unvaccinated, we're going to be at the front of the line to get our vaccine," Cohen said.

Mecklenburg County is expected to get the largest initial allocation of the shots in North Carolina, 13,500 doses, but they can't be administered before first getting approved by the FDA. That's expected to happen in the next few weeks.

One of the pediatricians preparing for when the green light comes is Dr. Julia Owens with Novant Health. She joins us now as part of our series Rebuilding Charlotte.

Marshall Terry: Welcome.

Julia Owens: Hi. Thank you for having me.

Terry: How is this vaccine different from the one that adults get?

Owens: Right. So, at its baseline, it's still an mRNA vaccine, so it's manufactured in the same way that it is for the adult vaccine. What's different about it is the dose. So what kids will be getting in the 5 to 11 age group is about a third of the dose of what we're giving to older kids and adults. So it still functions in the same way. So the mRNA vaccine is mimicking a natural human response, and it's triggering an antibody response to the spike protein of the COVID infection.

But what's taken so long and has so much research is they've been looking at what dose would be needed in smaller kids. And so we are going to be giving a smaller dose to this age group. It'll still be a two-dose series separated by about three weeks, similar to the adult age group.

Terry: Now, will kids still experience the same possible side effects that some adults have experienced?

Owens: Yes. So you know, the most common side-effects are going to be what a lot of adults experience. So typically after the second dose of the vaccine is when we see a little bit of that more immune response. And so kids can certainly have one to three days of some low-grade fever, body aches, chills. We typically expect those to just be very self-resolving with time.

There is some thought that kids have stronger immune systems than adults do, so could they have a little bit more of those side effects? Possibly. But we've also seen that by lowering the dose for the pediatric age group, we've seen that they have had lower numbers of this compared to some of the older adults. We still look out for allergic reactions after the vaccine. But really, we're seeing that from the trials, this vaccine is very safe and very effective in this age group.

Terry: And as I said, the vaccine is for children between the ages of 5 and 11. Why is there no vaccine for children younger than 5?

Owens: So, younger than 5 is going to take a little bit more time because they're talking about in that age group, will the dose be even lower? There have been some talks about the dose for that age group being about one-tenth of the size dose that it is for the adults. So it's just taking a little bit time figuring out, you know, kids are all different weights. And as they get bigger, the amount of vaccine that they'll need to respond is a little bit different. And so that is what takes some time to figure out.

Terry: Now, once the FDA gives its approval for this 5 to 11 shot, just how fast can you start putting shots in arms?

Owens: So I'd say that's a moving target. You know, a lot of our clinics in our clinic here in Ballantyne, we're already giving the vaccine to the 12 and up age group. The White House has purchased 28 million doses of the vaccine, so enough for every kid in this age group in the country. I think it'll be a moving target as far as how quickly we can distribute them to clinics and community sites. But the Novant Health Operations team is working closely with the Children's Health Institute right now to figure out exactly what that's going to look like. And I expect that pretty quickly after we start receiving vaccines we'll be able to start vaccinating kids.

"I'm a little bit of a worrywart and this is not keeping me up at night. I think this vaccine is very safe and very effective."
Julia Owens, Novant Health pediatrician

Terry: What are you hearing from parents? Are they eager to get their kids vaccinated or are they reluctant?

Owens: I would say, you know, a little bit of both — depending on the parents, of course. So I would say, you know, a lot of parents are starting to see that with the delta variant, their fears about their children getting COVID have increased compared to where it was prior. And I think that's starting to push some parents to be more interested in the vaccine.

You know, back in September, about 30% of all COVID infections were in children. And while most kids handle it well, we were seeing an increase in hospitalizations and deaths in this age group just because we were seeing so many more infections. And I think seeing a lot of those numbers have pushed parents to wanting to get their kids vaccinated, especially now that we're back in in-person schools.

I will say, there's always some fear that this is new technology and some parents have worried about putting a vaccine in their kids that's been on the market for such a short period of time. And what I do to reassure parents about that is, (say) we've given about 6.8 billion doses of this vaccine worldwide now. So we're starting to see a lot of data emerge from it. It was really well-tolerated in the 12 to 17 age group. And the way that this vaccine works is that the body essentially destroys the mRNA vaccine after the mRNA vaccine reaches the cells. So we don't expect any long-lasting effects in children from this vaccine.

So I just try to reassure parents, you know what? I'm a little bit of a worrywart and this is not keeping me up at night. I think this vaccine is very safe and very effective.

Terry: We are, of course, heading into the colder months, the winter, our second winter with COVID. What's your biggest concern as we do head into the winter months?

Owens: I would say, you know, we're coming out the end of this fall surge that we've had with the delta variant and our numbers are starting to come down. But that's not to say that we're not going to continue to see more surges. More and more people are going to be spending time inside. I think kids are back in schools. We've loosened up on masking in a lot of districts, and you just have to worry that we're going to continue to see more variants and more infections.

So I'm just hoping that we can get kids vaccinated so that we can feel a little bit safer sending our kids into these schools, knowing that they have an added layer of protection.

Terry: Thank you for taking the time.

Owens: Of course. Thank you.

Terry: Dr. Julia Owens is a pediatrician with Novant Health.

This conversation was produced as part of our series Rebuilding Charlotte, WFAE's look at how life has changed and the challenges ahead because of the pandemic. Support for Rebuilding Charlotte is provided by Lowe's Home Improvement.

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