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Children ages 5 to 11 are a step closer to being eligible for the Pfizer vaccine

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Looks like most elementary school students will just miss being fully vaccinated by Thanksgiving. The Food and Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children aged 5 to 11 yesterday. There are just a few more steps before the shots ship out. NPR's health policy correspondent Selena Simmons-Duffin joins us. Selena, thanks for being with us.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Good morning. This has been a long time coming for many parents. What do we know about the timeline?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, so right now, vials with the lower-dose vaccine for kids are being loaded up for distribution around the country. They have little orange caps and orange-striped labels to be easily identified as the pediatric version. And White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients spoke exclusively yesterday with NPR's Tamara Keith, and here's what he said.

JEFF ZIENTS: Within minutes of the FDA authorization, teams started the work of packing up the vaccines to be shipped. They're packed with special smaller syringes, dry ice and tracking labels.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He said 15 million initial doses are getting shipped out to 20,000 different locations. But even though all of this is happening and FDA has done its part to authorize the vaccine, shots won't be given out to kids until CDC weighs in, and that's going to happen next week.

SIMON: And walk us through that process, if you could.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. So on Tuesday, there's a meeting of outside scientists who advise the CDC on vaccines. They're going to consider who the vaccine should be recommended for. So should it be the whole group of kids in this age group or certain children with certain conditions? And they'll also be considering broader public health issues, like the role this age group has in community spread and concerns about school disruptions. After they take a vote on Tuesday, the final step is CDC Director Rochelle Walensky making an official recommendation. And if all goes according to plan, the rollout will then begin. However, Zients told NPR yesterday it will not be instantaneous.

ZIENTS: While we hope to see the first set of kids start to get vaccinated at the end of next week, the bulk of vaccines will be in their locations by the week of November 8.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So just like for adults and teenagers, this is a two-dose series given 21 days apart. So if you do the math - say the first shot is right on November 8 - the second shot would be November 29, so just a little bit after Thanksgiving.

SIMON: Selena, you followed the meetings and discussions at the FDA last week. What did you learn about how safe and effective the vaccine is?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the data that Pfizer submitted to the FDA shows the vaccine was 90.7% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19, and there were also no serious safety concerns in the trial, which included over 4,000 kids, although I should say a very rare side effect, like myocarditis, wouldn't show up in a study of this size. Still, federal health officials who spoke to reporters yesterday say they are confident this vaccine is safe and effective for kids.

SIMON: Selena, recent polls show that only about a third of parents say they plan to vaccinate their children right away. What kind of concern is there about that?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah. I mean, uptake was slower than expected in the 12-to-17 age group when they became eligible, and some public health officials think uptake might be slow in this group, too. Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock was asked yesterday about parents who may be wanting to wait until other children have gotten vaccinated, and here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JANET WOODCOCK: As a parent, and if I had young children in this age group, I would get them vaccinated now. I would not want to take the risk that they would be one of the ones who would develop long COVID, who would develop multisystem inflammatory syndrome or have to be hospitalized from the virus.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So far, more than 8,000 kids in this age group have been hospitalized with COVID-19, and nearly 100 have died, which is more than die from influenza each year. Pediatricians I've been talking to do recommend vaccination right away. For parents who aren't sure yet, who have questions, they suggest connecting with a trusted medical professional to help think it all through.

SIMON: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin, thanks so much.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.