Providers across the country can start vaccinating kids ages 6 months to 5 years as early as this coming week after regulators cleared the final authorization steps on Saturday.
An independent panel of advisers to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voted on Saturday to recommend vaccinating all children in the age group with one of two separate COVID-19 vaccines manufactured by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech.
"I am fully confident that vaccines should be recommended," said Dr. Grace Lee, the chair of the panel and a pediatrician at Stanford University. "We can clearly prevent hospitalizations and death, and we have the potential to prevent long term complications from infection that we don't yet understand well."
CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky quickly endorsed the recommendation, the final step before the vaccines could be rolled out.
"We know millions of parents and caregivers are eager to get their young children vaccinated, and with today's decision, they can," Walensky said in a statement. "I encourage parents and caregivers with questions to talk to their doctor, nurse, or local pharmacist to learn more about the benefits of vaccinations and the importance of protecting their children by getting them vaccinated."
During a two-day meeting starting Friday, the panelists reviewed data from clinical trials by both pharmaceutical companies, as well data on the need for vaccines for this age group.
According to the CDC, as of May 28, more than 400 children 0-4 years have died due to COVID.
"Among people ages 1-4, COVID is fifth most common cause of all causes of death," said Dr. Matthew Daley, speaking at the meeting Friday.
And data from older children and adults show that vaccination prevents death, said Daley, a senior clinician investigator at Kaiser Permanente's Institute of Health Research. In fact, he added, among people 5 years and older, the unvaccinated are 10 times more likely to die from COVID than the unvaccinated.
"Phrased another way, deaths from COVID-19 are preventable through vaccination," he said.
The vaccine made by Moderna for 6-month-olds to 5-year-olds is a two-dose series, given four weeks apart. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for 6-month-olds to 4-year-olds is a three-dose series. The first two shots are given three weeks apart, and the third one eight weeks after the second shot.
The CDC advisory panel voted 12-0 in favor of recommending both vaccines for this group of children, concluding that both vaccines protect children in this age group against symptomatic COVID-19, and the benefits outweigh possible risk.
"I am tremendously excited," said Dr. Adam Ratner, head of pediatric infectious diseases at NYU Langone Medical Center and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"This is a day a lot of us have been waiting for since the very beginning of the pandemic," he told NPR.
Many providers across the country have already pre-ordered the vaccine and can start administering it as early as this coming week.
"In early June, our state department of health put out a call for pre-orders," says Dr. Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician based in Atlanta.
She pre-ordered both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and is expecting to start making appointments and giving the shots on Tuesday.
"We've had a lot of interest in the vaccine," she told NPR. "Our phones have been ringing off the hook."
Data from a survey conducted in February showed that around half of parents of this age group "said they would definitely or probably vaccinate their child once they become eligible," said the CDC's Dr. Sarah Oliver, speaking at Saturday's meeting.
A third of parents said they "definitely or probably would not vaccinate their child," she added. And a fifth of respondents said they would within three months of vaccines becoming available.
"This infection kills children," said Dr. Beth Bell, a member of the panel and a public health expert at the University of Washington, speaking at the meeting. "We have an opportunity to prevent that and every parent will want to consider that calculus as well."