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SALT LAKE CITY — Now that the federal government has given the go-ahead to vaccinate children as young as 5 years old against COVID-19, Utah parents likely have questions as health care providers around the state scramble to make the shots available.
Approximately 365,000 Utah children 5 to 11 years old are eligible for the shots, one of the largest newly eligible groups in the state since COVID-19 vaccines began to roll out last December, according to the Utah Department of Health.
What's the latest on COVID-19 vaccines for young children?
A pediatric dose of the Pfizer vaccine (one-third of the dose given to those 12 and older) for children 5-11 years old has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration last week and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday.
The federal government started shipping out the downsized doses to states even before the approval was final late Tuesday. Utah preordered 109,000 doses late last month, and 50,000 arrived Tuesday, said Nate Checketts, executive director of the state health department. The rest should be in the state by Monday.
Almost two-thirds of the pediatric doses are going to local health departments, he said, adding that health care systems, pharmacies, doctors and pediatricians are also receiving doses that they can begin administering to young children right away.
Only the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is approved for children, adolescents and teenagers under 18. Children 5-11 years old should receive two shots of the specially packaged pediatric dose, three weeks apart. There are no additional or booster doses planned for that age group.
Where can Utah children get vaccinated against COVID-19?
Some local health districts are already offering the vaccine to children, but many were counting on final federal approval coming later in the week and planned on starting the shots Monday, said Jill Parker, executive director of the Utah Association of Local Health Departments.
"They're working to speed that up," Parker said.
The Salt Lake County Health Department began giving children 5-11 the shots on Wednesday at county health centers by appointment. Starting Monday, parents can bring their children to the centers for the vaccine without an appointment, although there may be a wait.
The Utah County Health Department is also already booking appointments for 5-11 years olds to get their shots at clinics in Payson, Provo and American Fork starting Friday, but spots are filling up fast and some sites may be booked out a few weeks.
The Davis County Health Department's drive-through COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Legacy Events Center in Farmington will start giving shots Monday to children as young as 5, while continuing to offer booster shots to adults. Appointments are required and can be made online.
Information on how Utah's other local health districts are handling COVID-19 vaccines for young children is available online. Links to local health departments, pharmacies and health care provider groups offering the vaccine are available on the state's COVID-19 website, coronavirus.utah.gov.
Right now, local health departments are the best bet for the shots, Dr. Michelle Hofmann, deputy director at the state health department, said, adding other types of providers may not yet be ready. She said parents can call their family doctor or pediatrician to see when they'll start giving the vaccine to young children.
Some doctors have already been taking appointments for the shots, although Intermountain Healthcare, the region's largest health care provider, is encouraging parents to wait until Monday to contact their family's physician.
"Beginning the week of Nov. 9 is when we're going to start to see things really open up," Hofmann said. She said more than 103 federal pharmacies in Utah have ordered the pediatric vaccine, along with 30 family medicine and pediatric practices, and an additional 46 state pharmacies.
Children in the newly approved age group considered at a higher risk from COVID-19 have been prioritized to receive the shots, she said, including those in disabled long-term care facilities and in areas served by federally qualified health centers or Native American health services.
Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for children? What side effects should parents expect?
Clinical trials found the lower dose of vaccine offered more than 90% protection against symptomatic COVID-19 in young children without any serious side effects reported.
"Happily, we can say that it's a safe vaccine," Dr. Leisha Nolen, state epidemiologist, said. Nolen said the trials also looked specifically for side effects and "what they found is that kids had the same side effects that we all had when we got the COVID vaccine."
That includes "the typical sore arm and then some of them would get sort of that achy pain, they would get fevers, headaches and joint pain. But really, the side effects were very minimal and nothing concerning. They did not have any significant side effects or health problems in the trials. That was really reassuring," she said.
Do children who've had COVID-19 still need the shots?
"The answer is yes. There is much stronger protection that happens with the vaccine," said Dr. Neal Davis, medical director of pediatric community-based care for Intermountain Healthcare.
Davis said the data used to support the federal government's decision to authorize the vaccine for younger children makes it clear "the answer is absolutely get the vaccine, even if your child had COVID. This provides added protection, including for the delta variant, which is very important."
Do children have to get COVID-19 shots separately from other vaccines?
No, Davis said. Just like with adults, "there's no need to space out any vaccines with the COVID vaccine. It can be given at the same time as other vaccines," he said, including flu shots.
Some flu shot vaccination clinics, like The Shot Spot at Intermountain Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City, are adding COVID-19 shots, likely starting Monday. There's concern about a comeback of respiratory illnesses like the flu and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) that all but disappeared last year due to anti-coronavirus precautions.
Are Utah parents ready to vaccinate their young children?
A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found Utah parents with children under 18 were split over vaccinating them against COVID-19. Those who said their children would not get the shots said their main reason was that they didn't think the vaccinations were necessary.
Not so, said Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Utah Health and director of hospital epidemiology at Primary Children's Hospital. Pavia said recently that "children are really suffering from COVID-19" as cases and hospitalizations among the young are going up.
He said the young can end up with rare but serious after effects from the virus, such as multisystem inflammatory syndrome or MIS-C, a serious disease affecting the heart or other organs, or what's known as "long COVID-19," lingering effects that can be worse than the virus itself.
Nolen said she believes "a very large portion of our population really supports vaccines and really wants to get people protected. So I think we're trying to work with the people who are willing to get the vaccine. That's our first goal, is to get the vaccine into people's arms."
Correction: An earlier version of this story said children 5-11 years should receive pediatric doses of the COVID-19 vaccine two weeks apart. The second shots are recommended to be given three weeks apart.