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SALT LAKE CITY — For pediatric experts like Dr. Andrew Pavia, a vaccine manufacturer's report that found its COVID-19 vaccine was safe and highly effective for children as young as 12 years old is welcome news.
Drug manufacturers Pfizer and BioNTech, which worked together on one of the three vaccines currently available to adults in the U.S., published a report that found 100% efficacy among clinical trial participants between the ages of 12 and 15.
The vaccine has already been approved for emergency use for children as young as 16, who were included in studies that began last year. The new study will go through the same process through the Food and Drug Administration in the coming weeks before the vaccine could be available for children as young as 12 in the U.S.
Utah experts estimate that it's possible that children 12 to 15 could be eligible to receive the vaccine by around June. It could also, at that point, open up vaccine eligibility to over 200,000 more Utahns, based on recent population Utah Department of Health population data provided to KSL.com.
"This is really important news," said Pavia, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with Primary Children's Hospital, in an online briefing with media hours after the study was published.
"It's important news for three reasons at least: the first is that it protects children — that's the most important reason," he continued. "We often say children don't get sick as often as adults and there are not as many hospitalizations or serious outcomes but that's damning with faint praise."
Pavia pointed out there still have been deaths tied to COVID-19 or MIS-C, which is a rare complication from COVID-19 that can develop in children.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists 246 children 17 and younger who have died from causes tied to COVID-19 and another 44 from COVID-19 and pneumonia. That's on top of "hundreds of thousands" of hospitalizations tied to it as well, Pavia added.
The Utah Department of Health data doesn't list exact numbers in its data other than there has been at least one 1-to-14-year-old that has died from complications tied to COVID-19 among the over 2,100 total deaths since March 2020. It also lists 322 hospitalizations among children 14 or younger.
Pavia said the other reason why Wednesday's news was important is that children, especially teenagers, are key infection spreaders and it will help the state — and really the country as a whole — to reach herd immunity, but we can't do that without vaccinating children.
"Having them vaccinated will allow them to interact with vulnerable people who can't be vaccinated or if the vaccines won't work and will decrease the risk for their family members and loved ones because no vaccine is 100% effective," he said. "And just because grandma and grandpa have been vaccinated, this adds an important extra layer of protection."
As for what it means for herd immunity, the state's percentage of residents under 18 is well above the nationwide average. The Census Bureau is still calculating official 2020 numbers but it estimated that 29% of the state's population in 2019 was under 18 compared to 23% of the total U.S. population.
Utah Department of Health data listed that there were 213,900 children between the ages of 12 and 15 in Utah back in 2019. Public health experts have said that 70% to 90% immunization is likely needed to reach herd immunity.
"It'll get us much closer to normalcy once the vaccine gets into the arms of people 12 to 16. That's not going to happen until the FDA carefully reviews the data and issues an emergency use authorization," Pavia said. "Then the issue will be getting the vaccine out to people in those age groups because that's going to take some significant efforts."
Pavia also said Wednesday that while he and other pedestrians are excited about Pfizer and BioNTech's announcement, it's important that it go through a rigorous process and be approved by the FDA to ensure that it is safe.
Then comes the challenge of dealing with possible hesitancy, which already exists in some cases with adults. Pavia blamed some of it on disinformation that can be the result of distrust, miscommunication or even intentional misinformation from others in more extreme cases.
As the vaccine becomes more widely available in the coming weeks and months, it's likely that children can be vaccinated at clinics and doctor's offices. That would allow parents an opportunity to have one-on-one discussions with their family provider about questions or concerns they may have about the vaccine, Pavia explained.
Another important item addressed Wednesday was equal access to the vaccine, which Pavia said could be more difficult for some Utah families than others. That's why he praised the state's recent vaccine "equity roadmap" plan which Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson unveiled earlier this month. The plan was created as a way to ensure all Utahns will have access to the vaccine.
"We have to communicate with parents that there are real benefits to their children, there are real benefits to their family and there are real benefits for the community," Pavia said. "We have to have that comfort from trusted sources. For many families, the most trusted source is their doctor, their provider."