It Shouldn’t Take This Long to Vaccinate Our Youngest Kids

The Food and Drug Administration last week announced authorization of a third Covid vaccine dose — a single booster — for children 5-11. This comes as parents of kids under 5 still wait for vaccine authorization for their children, after months of hard-to-decipher announcements, from both the F.D.A. and pharmaceutical companies. According to reporting from Sharon LaFraniere in The Times at the end of April, the F.D.A. said that it understood the urgency of protecting children under 5, “and that it would act quickly ‘if the data support a clear path forward following our evaluation.’”

The “if” is doing a lot of work in that statement. But in any event, the F.D.A. will look at the data and consider emergency use authorization for the preschool and toddler set in June. On Monday, Pfizer-BioNTech announced that a three-shot regimen “was found to elicit a strong immune response, with a favorable safety profile similar to placebo,” in children 6 months to under 5 years, making it seem more likely that this authorization would be granted. The F.D.A. will also review Moderna’s application for a vaccine for children under 6 years at the same time.

I don’t want to downplay this — it’s good news! But I do want to point out that even though authorization looks to be drawing near, the long wait has left damage in its wake. Some parents of small children are beyond frustrated and feel abandoned by the institutions that they feel have contributed to the lag. As my Times Opinion colleague Zeynep Tufekci explained last month, “Some frustrations and setbacks may have been unavoidable, but some seem due to officials making unjustified assumptions about the public and relying on overly narrow and even outdated measures of vaccine benefits.”

For parents, this drawn-out approval process has meant that their kids have had to endure successive Covid waves without the additional protections that the vaccines may provide against serious illness and hospitalization. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “During Omicron variant predominance beginning in late December 2021, U.S. infants and children aged 0-4 years were hospitalized at approximately five times the rate of the previous peak during Delta variant predominance.” (Overall, Covid tends to be less severe for children than for adults.)

Back in March, when The Times asked readers how they felt about vaccinating their kids under 5, many said they were desperate — quite a few used that exact word — to get their little ones the shot. This sentiment, from Laurel K., the mother of a toddler in San Francisco, was typical:

More bluntly, a parent from Fort Thomas, Ky., wrote: “I would possibly commit a crime to get my child vaccinated.”

“It shouldn’t have taken this long to figure out the dose” for the smallest children, said Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who writes the Inside Medicine newsletter. Faust is also the father of a 4-year-old and has a baby on the way. “It just frustrates me,” he said. It’s the same vaccine adults have been getting for more than a year, just at a different concentration. “It’s not like we had to change the recipe,” he said. “It’s that the trials were too slow.”

Of course, this delay is now overlapping with the baby formula shortage, though, fingers crossed, that may soon ease, as shipments of formula are starting to arrive from Europe and the Biden administration has invoked the Defense Production Act to get more formula on the shelves. The White House deserves credit for this.

But as I wrote last week, the formula crisis felt like “a slow-motion train wreck” that could have been prevented had policymakers made the health of our youngest citizens a priority. The same could be said of the vaccine delay for under-5s. “The Department of Homeland Security sees hospital capacity as a matter of critical infrastructure,” said Faust. “I would just add that feeding babies would certainly be a matter of national security. They are members of our nation.”

But babies can’t vote and their needs weren’t at the forefront of a lot of coverage I’ve seen about the primary elections in recent weeks. There’s no shortage of talk about who does and doesn’t have former President Donald Trump’s endorsement. There’s a lot of stoking of culture war fires and discussion of charisma and vibes. But child tax credits, paid parental leave, child-care funding or other measures that are directed toward children or their parents? Not so much. These aren’t fringe issues, they’re policy questions crucial for the health of the next generation.

The pandemic has revealed the cracks in so many of our systems, and people — not just parents — have been deeply affected. But unless they want to live off the grid, home-birth their babies and (continue to) home-school their kids, parents have to interact with these systems frequently. And when you feel that it’s impossible to meet your children’s most basic needs, it can break you.

I can’t stop thinking about Laurel in San Francisco, who respected experts and institutions and has been left furious and shaken. For the past two years, the health of our smallest and most vulnerable citizens has been something of an afterthought. If our political leadership won’t pay more attention to families, the disaffection and distrust from parents will get worse.

Want More?

  • During the last Covid surge, I wrote about the despair among parents of children under 5. With the latest wave, day care closures and Covid exposure quarantines are still a problem for working parents.

  • The Times Opinion contributing writer Elizabeth Spiers wrote a great article last week about how amazing formula is. Here’s my favorite part: “It’s also worth noting that formula, whatever you think of it, is better than the alternative, which in many cases is letting babies starve. Before the advent of modern formula, this is what often happened, especially if women did not have access to communities of other women who could feed their babies for them. But the judgment of mothers for feeding their babies formula is not really about self-sufficiency; it’s about justifying the suffering of women as a motherly virtue.”

  • Here are some updates on an outbreak of hepatitis among children and monkeypox, generally. My response to this news is that I simply cannot process it at this time and may return to it at a later date when my brain has allowed it.

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