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What to know about getting COVID-19 vaccines for kids under 5 in Massachusetts

A doctor prepares a vaccine for a young girl.
Getty Images
A doctor prepares a vaccine for a young girl.

There are approximately 320,000 children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years in Massachusetts — the largest group that, until now, has not had access to the COVID-19 vaccines.

Federal regulators met this week to evaluate the data and give their blessing for these younger kids to get the jabs. This comes more than seven months after 5- to 11-year-olds were granted access to the shots, and over a year and half after adults were allowed to start lining up. To get the doses out as quickly as possible, pediatricians in Massachusetts were able to pre-order the vials before the vaccine was officially authorized.

Here are the answers to questions about where to find the shots, whether to get Moderna or Pfizer, what to do if your kids are about to turn 5 — and more.

When Can Little Kids Get The Vaccine?

Now that both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have signed off on the vaccines, the state says the first vials will be delivered to providers Thursday — but eager parents might want to temper their expectations.

Lloyd Fisher, president of the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics said some doctors’ offices and clinics may need a little time to prepare before they begin administering shots.

The Massachusetts COVID-19 Vaccine Program, which coordinated pre-ordering, said doses would begin to be delivered Thursday, “and throughout the rest of that week and into the following week.”

Retail pharmacies will get vials through the federal government, but parents take note: Pharmacies will not be able to provide shots to the youngest kids in this age group.

Where Will Kids Get Vaccinated?

Unlike other age groups, the rollout for the youngest kids will focus more on pediatricians’ offices, and less on retail pharmacies. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Check with your child’s doctor

The expectation is that many kids in this age group will go to their regular health care providers — pediatricians, family doctors or community health centers — to get the vaccine. Each doctor’s office will coordinate its own distribution method.

Chloe Campbell, medical director of Pediatric Associates of Greater Salem and Beverly, said her office plans to update parents through social media.

In previous rollouts, she said her practice served as a statewide site, vaccinating not just its own patients but anyone in the age group. Due to flagging interest, the practice stopped those clinics. “We would sometimes just have 10 patients as opposed to 500,” she said.

With this rollout for the littlest kids, Campbell said the plan is to serve only their own patients.

  • Some small pediatrician offices may not offer the COVID vaccine

“We do know that there are some logistical challenges, especially for small offices,” Fisher said. “It is a little bit more complicated than the other routine childhood vaccines.”

While many childhood vaccines come in single dose vials, the pediatric COVID vaccines come in 10-dose vials. Since the medical community is trying not to waste any doses, Fisher said this can pose a problem for offices that don’t have enough kids ready to get the shots at the same time.

  • Retail pharmacies will be an option for some kids — but not for babies and many toddlers.

Retail pharmacies will provide vaccines to children ages 3 and older, Fisher said. And CVS has said its MinuteClinics will vaccinate children 18 months and up. Some parents have raised concerns about children too young to reliably mask going into pharmacies that also serve COVID patients with “test-to-treat” programs.

  • Kids vaccine clinics may be coming to some locations

Fisher expects clinics to target the 20 highest risk communities in Massachusetts. In past rollouts, government officials have partnered with local groups and organizations — like public libraries — to host clinics. “They’ve said they’re going to do the same thing for this age group,” Fisher said.

When WBUR reached out to state officials, they declined to make anyone available for an interview. A spokesperson for Boston Children’s Hospital confirmed it would host a vaccine clinic, but said the details are not yet available.

Which Vaccine Should I Get For My Child?

Two COVID vaccines are simultaneously becoming available to the youngest age group: Moderna’s two-shot regimen and Pfizer’s three-shot regimen.

Some experts have warned parents against trying to parse the data or getting too invested in one vaccine or another.

“They are essentially the same product,” said Christina Hermos, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Massachusetts Children’s Medical Center.

Explaining the somewhat lower efficacy data in the Moderna trial, Hermos said the studies were done at different times, which complicates the picture. “Moderna was done in the setting of newer variants. So, they are really hard to compare,” Hermos said. “I would say just take what’s available.”

Parents may not have a choice since many pediatrician offices are only ordering one of the two options. For example, Pediatric Associates of Greater Salem and Beverly will only offer Pfizer, while West Cambridge Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine will only offer Moderna shots.

Should Young Kids Even Get Vaccinated?

As COVID vaccines becomes available to younger and younger kids, Fisher has noticed a pattern.

“We saw that the number of parents who were concerned or hesitant was a little bit higher in the 5 to 11 [age group] than it was with the teenagers. And we expect it will definitely be a bit higher in the younger age group,” he said.

Fisher urged parents who have questions to talk to their child’s pediatrician. However, he also strongly recommends everyone who is eligible get vaccinated.

“The risk of severe disease — from getting the disease and not getting the vaccine — is higher than the risk of anything happening from a side effect for the vaccine,” Fisher said.

Hermos also noted that, nationwide, more than 400 children under 5 have died from COVID.

“Even though that’s a small number compared to adults, I think it’s important to realize it’s far more deadly than the flu, which we know is quite a deadly virus,” she said.

Hermos said she understands hesitant parents, who point out that many children get only mildly sick from COVID, and who worry that the vaccines don’t provide complete protection from infection. Still, she said, being vaccinated is worthwhile.

“Those children who are vaccinated are going to be able to clear their infection much faster and pose less risk to others,” she said.

And, she added, even if a child has already had COVID, they should still get the shot.

“We never know when another variant is coming that might be a little bit more dangerous. And also, we never know when that child is going to be re-infected and pass it on to someone who’s very vulnerable and cause hospitalization or death,” she said.

If My Kid Is About To Turn 5, Should I Wait?

Some parents who have 4-year-olds on the cusp of becoming 5-year-olds have wondered about holding off on getting vaccinated until after their child’s birthday. That way, the 5-year-old will get a higher dose of the vaccine.

Generally, pediatricians counsel against this tactic.

“The recommendation is to get the vaccine that the child is eligible for now and not to wait,” Fisher said, pointing out that data from the clinical trials showed the antibody response with the lower dose in this age group was similar to the response for older children with the higher dose.

Hermos agreed: “It’s judgement call, but I would say get the vaccine when available.”

If a child has a birthday that falls between doses, they will receive the dose appropriate for their age at the time of the shot. So, if a 4-year-old receives dose one at the lower dose and then turns 5, the second dose will be the higher dose given to 5- to 11-year-olds.

What About Kids Under 6 Months?

While the jabs are only available to children 6 months and older, the littlest babies may still be able to access some of the protection vaccines offer.

A study from researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that when a pregnant person gets vaccinated, the antibodies can be detected in the baby months after delivery.

The study found that 6 months after birth, 57% of infants born to vaccinated mothers had detectable antibodies.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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