Health & Science

Houston health institutions prepare for COVID-19 vaccine approval for younger kids

Once final approval is given Houston health officials say addressing vaccine hesitancy in parents and reaching underserved communities will be key.

A health care worker injects a boy with a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, during a vaccination drive for children between the ages of 12-17, in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.

COVID-19 vaccine providers in Houston are preparing for the green light to vaccinate kids, after a U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel Tuesday recommended the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 5 to 11.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could follow suit as early as next week.

Public health advocates in Houston say once final approval is given, it will be up to more than just pediatricians and children's health clinics to get local children vaccinated — it will also be vital to address vaccine hesitancy in parents, and to make sure doses are accessible in hard-to-reach communities.

“Essentially the same kinds of barriers we saw in getting adults vaccinated, we’ll see with kids, plus some because they’re kids and people are more likely to be more protective of them,” said Elena Marks, president of the Houston based Episcopal Health Foundation.

A number of community groups are already working with vulnerable populations, and talking to parents about the importance of getting kids vaccinated, Marks said.

The Texas Department of State Health Services announced this week it’s preparing for the vaccine’s approval. The agency preordered 1.3 million doses to be administered in three waves statewide. There are more than 2.9 million children between the ages of 5 and 11 in Texas.

Over the summer, pediatric hospitalizations reached record highs, as the COVID-19 delta variant spread throughout Houston and across Texas. At its highest point, DSHS reported nearly 350 kids hospitalized across the state. Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district, has seen 3,255 total cases since the beginning of the school year, according to data reported by HISD.

COVID-19 is the eighth-highest cause of death for children in that age group over the last year, according to FDA advisor Dr. Amanda Cohn.

The summer surge led teachers, parents and advocates have called for mask implementation in schools to limit the spread of the disease and to ensure in-person learning is safe. But Gov. Greg Abott has banned cities and local governments — including school districts — from imposing mandates.

Dozens of school districts across Texas have defied that order, challenging the governor in court.

While kids are less likely to get seriously ill from COVID-19, children’s normal habits still make it likely that the virus will spread among younger populations — especially after the more-contagious delta variant emerged this summer.

“You can talk about social distancing in grade school all you want, but you get five or six kindergartners together for six hours, and tell me someone’s not going to hug somebody,” Houston Health Authority Dr. David Persse told Houston Public Media in August, during the worst of the surge. “They're little kids. They're going to do what little kids do.”

Local health experts expect full approval of vaccines for younger kids sooner than later, and are just awaiting a CDC panel to align with the FDA and endorse the shot for kids.

“This is generally a slow, deliberative process,” said Dr. Linda Yancy, an infectious disease specialist at Memorial Hermann Hospital. “So everyone gets a chance to weigh in. But the person who makes the final decision on this is the director of the CDC.”

Earlier this month, the CDC advisory panel and the agency's director had a difference of opinion on whether to recommend Moderna's vaccine as a booster. Yancy didn’t expect that to happen in this case, and she thinks the shot will be available for children early next month.

“I would urge everyone, get your kids vaccinated,” she said. “It's going to give you piece of mind. You'll know that you've done everything you could to protect them, which is the most important thing a parent can do.”

Additional reporting by Haya Panjwani of KERA.

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