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Should children get the COVID-19 vaccine? Experts address parents' concerns

As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available to more kids, here are some of parents' most pressing questions answered, from safety to infertility risks and more.
The COVID-19 vaccine is currently available to children between 12 and 17 years old in the U.S. But many parents are still wondering: Should kids get the COVID-19 vaccine?TODAY illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for use in children ages 12 to 15, and on Tuesday, Moderna announced that its vaccine is effective and safe in children ages 12 to 17, adding that it plans to submit its data for FDA approval in early June. Johnson & Johnson, the third drug manufacturer whose vaccine is approved in the U.S., is also researching its single-dose product in children.

As shots become more available to kids, many parents are left wondering: Should children get the COVID-19 vaccine?

While rates of the coronavirus have been steadily dropping in the U.S. since mid-April and children tend to get less sick from the disease, vaccinating kids will be crucial to returning to life as we knew it, Dr. Thomas Murray, an infectious disease pediatrician at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, told TODAY.

"The bottom line is the more people we get vaccinated, the fewer opportunities there are for the virus to spread," he explained. "Anything we can do to get people vaccinated will reduce the community prevalence. ... That is how we get rid of this virus and stop having to worry about all the risk mitigation strategies (like masking and distancing)."

Should children get the COVID-19 vaccine?

The answer, generally speaking, is yes — for a few reasons, said Dr. Federico Laham, medical director for Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children Infectious Diseases. The first one is, based on current data, the COVID-19 vaccine creates antibody levels in kids that help protect them from illness.

"Even though (children) themselves are not at a greater risk for hospitalization, they can ... develop illness requiring a medically attended visit and then also resulting into transmission to other adults who themselves may be at higher risk for complications," he explained.

Another important factor to consider is that as we enter the summer months, he anticipates that prevention measures like masking and social distancing will be less prevalent.

"Really the only thing that is left to dent the transmission is increasing rates of vaccination, and that includes the patients who are less than 17," he added.

Getting kids vaccinated can also help curb a possible uptick in infections when returning to school come fall, as the virus is expected to have some seasonality to its spread, according to Laham.

Dr. Allison Agwu, professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, told TODAY that she's been sharing with patients that she chose to vaccinate her 13-year-old against COVID-19.

"I own that (the vaccine) has not been out for for five years or 10 years, but the reality is we don't have that luxury," she said. "For me, her physical health, as well as her mental, emotional health and my (family's health) with her going and trying to engage in life was important. Looking at the safety data, I felt comfortable, particularly having received that same vaccine myself."

Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for kids?

Yes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it is safe for your child to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

So far, only Pfizer has submitted data for authorization from the FDA in kids 12 to 15, which it received. The data for this age group indicated that the "known and potential benefits of this vaccine in individuals 12 years of age and older outweigh the known and potential risks," according to the FDA.

The most common side effects in the 12 to 15-year-olds who received the Pfizer vaccine in clinical trials were similar to what adults experience: pain at the injection site, fatigue, headache, chills, muscle pain, fever and joint pain, usually lasting one to three days. The FDA also stated that the vaccine was 100% effective at preventing COVID-19 in this age group.

"One of the greatest reasons to get this vaccine is that it has proven to be highly effective in all age groups that it has been studied in thus far, which is one of the reasons we're seeing the downward trends nationally," Murray said.

There have been reports of severe allergic reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine in adults, but they remain "quite rare," Dr. Rick Malley, infectious disease pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital, told TODAY.

The safety data for other age groups for the Pfizer vaccine has not been released, and Moderna has yet to submit its data for 12 to 17 year olds to the FDA, but preliminary findings indicate the vaccine was 100% effective and side effects were mild or moderate.

For preteens to 6 month olds, the research is still ongoing for all three vaccines. Moderna president Dr. Stephen Hoge previously told TODAY that the studies on younger age groups could take the better part of this year to complete.

Can the vaccine cause infertility?

Murray said parents of teenage girls especially have expressed concerns to him about the COVID-19 vaccine's potential effects on their fertility.

"There's really no scientific evidence for that," he explained. "In all the vaccines that we've given for many years now, all different kinds of vaccines, that's never been an issue, and there don't tend to be long-term consequences from vaccines."

What about the reports of heart problems in children who've received the COVID-19 vaccine?

The CDC is currently investigating a possible link between the COVID-19 vaccine and myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart usually from a viral infection, according to the Myocarditis Foundation. The CDC has identified several dozen reports in teens and young people, and it's still unclear whether they were caused by the vaccine.

The reports are very rare — some 288 million doses of the vaccine have been given — and the condition usually resolves quickly, experts told NBC News.

"Those are far and apart, really few cases, as compared to the overall number of children who do not develop any reactions," Laham stressed, adding that the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the nation's leading pediatricians group, is still to vaccinate kids 12 and up against COVID-19.

Murray added that he sees the reports of myocarditis as testament to the safety of the vaccine system.

"It speaks to ... everybody's attention to safety and trying to be absolutely certain that any potential adverse effects, no matter how rare, and even if they don't turn out to be related, are investigated so that everybody who is making a decision to get their child vaccinated has accurate information," he said.

Who should not get the COVID-19 vaccine?

The CDC says that anyone who has a history of severe allergic reactions or immediate allergic reactions, regardless of whether they were severe, to any components of either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines should not receive it. The same goes for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

For parents of any kids who've had a significant reaction to a previous vaccine, Murray recommended taking the child to see an allergy immunologist "just to really understand the nature of the reaction, and decide whether there are any medicines that can be helpful. ... When a parent's concerned, it's appropriate to have an expert on allergic reactions weigh in and help make an educated decision."

Does the guidance on COVID-19 vaccines change for young kids versus teens?

The data shows that teens are more likely to contract the coronavirus than young children. But when parents are deciding whether to vaccinate young children (when it becomes available), it's important to note that younger age groups still can get severely ill and die from COVID-19, Agwu told TODAY.

"You have a vaccine that has a relatively low risk from what we know ... and I can't tell you whether your kid is going to be the kid that gets really sick and potentially die from COVID or the after effects," she explained.

Another benefit of vaccinating younger kids, despite their lower risk, is protecting those they spend time with who may be at risk of severe illness, Murray said.

Malley also stressed the importance of vaccinating immunocompromised children of all ages.

"Individuals who we know COVID-19 would be very serious and dangerous for, those kids should get vaccinated, without question," he said.

For 12-year-olds to 17-year-olds, vaccines are especially important, Murray said, because they tend to be more socially active than younger children.

"We know ... that these are the kinds of activities that can lead to a lot of transmission," he added. "The best way to protect them from COVID is to get them vaccinated."