WASHINGTON — Coronavirus vaccines could become available to children under the age of 5 within a matter of days, potentially offering relief to millions of parents who have been unable to inoculate their children since the vaccination effort began in late 2020.
“We have waited a long time for this moment,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who heads the White House pandemic response team, said during a Thursday press briefing. “We are on the cusp of having safe, highly effective vaccines for kids under 5.”
The vaccines still need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which the agency is expected to do next week. Moderna and Pfizer have both submitted data showing that their vaccines are safe and effective against the coronavirus. If the FDA endorses the vaccines, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel will meet at the end of next week, a senior administration official told reporters on a Wednesday evening press call.
Should both agencies offer their authorization, “it would be an historic milestone in the nation’s fight against the virus,” the senior administration official told reporters. “It would mean that nearly every American is now eligible for the protection that vaccination provides.”
Monday, June 20, marks Juneteenth, a new federal holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. (The holiday itself is June 19, which this year happens to fall on a Sunday.) The Biden administration expects vaccination for children under 5 to begin that Tuesday, June 21.
“Vaccinations will be available at a variety of trusted locations, but we know that many families will actually turn to their pediatricians and primary care doctors,” the senior administration official said. “And we stand ready to support those frontline providers.”
Speaking at the following day’s press briefing, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said that a public information campaign would stress the safety and efficacy of childhood vaccination. The campaign would involve superheroes, he said, without specifying which ones.
The federal government has been criticized for the delay in authorizing vaccines for young children, but Jha and others have defended the process as one adhering to rigorous science that parents would be able to trust. Misinformation has plagued the nation’s pandemic response from the start, and the broader issue of childhood vaccination has been prey to elaborate misinformation campaigns for decades.
“What we are going to do in this vaccination effort is build on all of the lessons we have learned in the last 18 months,” Murthy said.
Rates of childhood vaccination have remained relatively flat, with moderate uptake: 59.6% of adolescents ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC; the share falls to 29.3% for children between the ages of 5 and 12.
Severe and fatal cases of COVID-19 among young children are highly rare but have been recorded. According to the CDC, 442 children under the age of 5 have died from the disease. Still, the vaccine could offer an added layer of security as families travel throughout the summer and as children return to schools and care settings next fall.
Murthy, who has two young children, has frequently invoked his own experience as a parent to reassure others. The surgeon general did so again on Thursday. “It’s a step worth taking,” he said of childhood vaccination, putting a hand over his heart. “It’s why I got my 5-year-old vaccinated. It’s why, when a vaccine is available for kids under 5, I will be in line with my 4-year-old to get her vaccinated as well.”