How Covid vaccines for children under 5 can help end the pandemic: experts


How Covid vaccines for children under 5 can help end the pandemic: experts

For months the country has been waiting for a pandemic tipping point – and it could be here, in the form of children under the age of 5 becoming eligible for Covid vaccines.

Just don’t expect it to make Covid go away overnight, experts say.

Covid vaccines for young children are “an absolute game changer for some families,” Andrew Noymer, associate professor of population health and disease prevention at the University of California, Irvine, tells CNBC Make It. “[But] Unfortunately, that’s not the last piece of the puzzle.”

The good news is very good: 18 million new people are now eligible for a vaccine in the coming months, and even a fraction of them would significantly improve the country’s overall protection against the virus.

But low vaccination rates among the rest of the US population – coupled with the emergence of new variants and constant regional Covid flare-ups – make it difficult to determine exactly when the pandemic will transition to endemic status.

Here’s why, and what experts say you can do to finally put an end to the Covid pandemic:

Low vaccination rates remain a major problem

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about two-thirds of people in the United States have now received a first batch of Covid vaccines. That number is falling dramatically among young age groups: as of last week, less than 30% of eligible 5-11 year olds in the US were fully vaccinated against Covid-19

Many parents are understandably nervous when their child receives a new vaccine. But opting out does more harm than good to these kids, says Dr. Jesica Herrick, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Illinois College of Medicine: Almost 90% of children ages 5 to 11 hospitalized for Covid during the omicron surge in December were unvaccinated, according to the CDC.

Once Herrick was given access to the vaccine, her 7 month old son got his shot last week. “People aren’t as close to the dates and numbers as we are,” she says. “I got my kid vaccinated the first appointment I could get, and I think that’s true of most doctors.”

Part of the problem, Herrick says, is that Covid fatigue is in full swing among much of the US population. In many people, omicron and its subvariants do not cause particularly serious illnesses, especially in fully vaccinated people, which gives people less reason to be rigorous about virus prevention.

But there’s no guarantee Covid’s mutations will end with Omicron, says Ali Mokdad, chief strategy officer for population health at the University of Washington in Seattle. As long as the virus keeps circulating in some way, it can mutate again — and it’s impossible to predict the severity of future variants.

“We can’t just get rid of the pandemic. You can’t just close your eyes and say, ‘Nothing’s going on, the pandemic is over,'” says Herrick.

Finding solutions to finally make Covid endemic

In March, a major report released by a large group of doctors and public health experts laid out a roadmap for moving Covid from pandemic to endemic in the US. It found that to reach a “new normal” Covid death rates would need to roughly match those of influenza – averaging fewer than 165 new deaths per day.

The seven-day average of daily new Covid deaths as of Monday is 371, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

The solution could include vaccines targeting specific Covid variants. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory committee is meeting Tuesday to discuss the approval of such Omicron-specific vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna as booster shots next fall, potentially as the first in an annual series of custom booster shots.

Mokdad says clinical trial data for these vaccines bodes well so far – but if you or your child aren’t up to date on Covid vaccinations, don’t wait for a new vaccine to be approved. The sooner the country’s vaccination rates can ramp up, he says, the better.

“There’s a new vaccine coming out that’s updated to include BA.4, BA.5 or Omicron,” he says, “but we shouldn’t wait for a better vaccine to come out. We should vaccinate our children today and today to better protect them as soon as possible.”

This is especially important right now: According to data from Johns Hopkins University, new cases are resurging every day, and that means a new variant of unknown severity could soon emerge.

Thomas Russo, an infectious diseases physician at the University of Buffalo, says these types of unknowns make Covid particularly impossible to predict. What we do know, he says, is that vaccination is currently the most important tool in our toolbox to end the pandemic.

“This virus is not going anywhere and will continue to circulate for a number of years, if not forever,” Russo says. “Therefore, the amount of damage it causes will be indirectly proportional to the proportion of the population that is vaccinated.”

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