The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday approved booster shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for children ages 12 to 17, citing rising infections in teens and young adults and a worrying increase in pediatric hospitalizations.
As the infectious Omicron variant spreads through the country, public health authorities have seized additional vaccine doses as a first line of defense. Pfizer-BioNTech boosters are now approved for any American over the age of 12 who are five months after their second dose of the vaccine.
An advisory committee recommended the changes after a meeting on Wednesday. They were approved by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC Director, Wednesday night. Young people aged 12 to 15 can start receiving boosters immediately. Young people aged 16 and older were already allowed to receive booster shots, but on Wednesday, the CDC panel strengthened the recommendation.
The advisory panel followed a similar step earlier this week by the Food and Drug Administration, which approved Pfizer-BioNtech boosters for teens and shortened the recommended time interval between initial vaccine treatment and the booster.
The FDA also approved “an extra primary dose” of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for moderately or severely immunocompromised children ages 5 to 11, to be given 28 days after their second shot.
Studies suggest that vaccine side effects are minimal in children, although there is persistent concern about a link to myocarditis, a rare inflammation of the heart muscle that occurs more frequently in young men after vaccination.
In Israel, which began administering boosters to teens ages 12 to 15 in June and is closely tracking side effects, the Ministry of Health identified two cases of myocarditis among about 41,600 teens in this age group who received the booster.
Both children were briefly admitted to the hospital and have fully recovered, said Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, an Israeli health official who spoke to the committee.
The booster dramatically reduced the rate of infection among children ages 12 to 15, said Dr. Alroy Prize. Although most infected teens generally did not experience a serious Covid disease that required hospitalization, two children – a boy and a girl – died, she said.
But while much of the committee’s discussion focused on the risks of the vaccine and its side effects, Dr. Camille Kotton, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School specializing in transplanted and immunocompromised patients, said the focus should be on the disease itself, which has a devastating effect on vulnerable and immunocompromised patients.
“This is an important thing to keep in mind – the risk of myocarditis from the disease itself,” said Dr. Cotton.
Although Omicron is generally perceived to cause less serious illness, she said, she now sees several patients on life support. Some are dead.
“It’s a terrible situation,” she said. “Omicron’s highly contagious nature is such that patients who have been incredibly careful over the last two years have been infected with terrible results.”
Dr. Katherine Poehling, director of pediatric public health at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, NC, expressed similar feelings. “There are children waiting in the emergency room for 18 hours and longer to get into the hospital because we are so drunk,” she said. “We have parents asking us if their children can get a booster dose, just like older children.”
However, several committee members said they became increasingly concerned that only a minority of young children were being vaccinated at all, and said it was crucial to increase rates and adhere to other prevention strategies, such as masking.
“We can not place the full burden on the people who are willing to be vaccinated,” said Lynn Bahta, a committee member who is a trained nurse in the Minnesota Department of Health. “When we only have half of our young people vaccinated, it also increases a greater burden. I’m so worried that the burden of disease prevention all falls on the vaccinated and that they get the boosters.”
More than 70 percent of people 12 years and older in the United States are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC Children under the age of 5 are still not eligible for vaccination.
Americans 18 years and older who received Moderna’s vaccine can receive a booster of any available coronavirus vaccine six months after the second shot. Those who received the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine can receive a booster dose of any available vaccine two months after their first shot.
The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are both highly preferred over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the CDC has said. Only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved for children aged 5 to 11; boosters are not yet recommended for this group.