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Many are frustrated that kids under 5 still don't have a COVID-19 vaccine

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As more people stop wearing masks, some parents of very young kids feel frustrated because they cannot vaccinate their kids who are younger than 5. What's the delay? And how much does it matter? NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is covering this story. Hey there, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I got to note, most parents of kids who are over 5 have not vaccinated their kids.

STEIN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: So are there really that many parents of kids under 5 who want the vaccine?

STEIN: Yeah. Yeah. You're absolutely right. Only about a quarter of kids between the ages of 5 and 11 are fully vaccinated even though they've been eligible now for months. So it is unclear how big of a demand there will be for the younger kids. That said, there are clearly lots of parents out there who are super anxious to get the vaccine for their little ones, like Shanti Geiser (ph). She's 25 and has two young sons. The whole family is still holed up in their house in Seattle, isolated from the world.

SHANTI GEISER: We're just really scared. We're really scared that COVID is a risk to them. So it's just been really hard. It's extremely brutal.

STEIN: Now, you know, in most cases, young kids, COVID tends to be mild. But they still can get sick, end up in intensive care and even die. So you know, for parents like Geiser, it's been agonizing that it's taking so long, especially now that so many people are walking around unmasked.

INSKEEP: Do you feel you understand why it's taking so long?

STEIN: Well, you know, some experts say the pediatric studies didn't start soon enough or big enough to quickly demonstrate that the vaccine is safe and effective for young kids. Others say, you know, they had to start with adults and carefully work their way down, you know? One big issue has been finding the right dose. Kids aren't just little adults, so coming up with the right dose can be tricky. You need to find that sweet spot that stimulates the immune system to respond strongly enough without producing too many side effects, like that rare heart inflammation. That's been a problem mostly among young men - or too many high fevers, which can be a bigger problem for kids than adults and teenagers. I talked about this with Dr. Buddy Creech at Vanderbilt. He's helping test Moderna's vaccine in kids, which is about one-quarter of the adult dose.

BUDDY CREECH: We're trying to find that Goldilocks dose where it's both safe and effective.

STEIN: The good news is so far, it looks like the lower-dose vaccines are very safe for kids. But you might remember, Pfizer's initial results indicated its pediatric vaccine, which is one-tenth the adult dose, seemed like it might protect babies 6 months to 24 months, but not kids ages 2, 3, and 4. So they started giving all the kids a third dose to see if that might do the trick.

INSKEEP: And did it work?

STEIN: You know, everybody's on the edge of their seat waiting to find out, you know? Pfizer's results are expected in April. Moderna's could come as soon as the end of this month. If things look good, the FDA and CDC could sign off pretty quickly. Here's Dr. Sean O'Leary, a University of Colorado pediatrician who helps advise the American Academy of Pediatrics.

SEAN O'LEARY: It's understandable that parents want a vaccine for these kids. Absolutely. You know, they're the last age group that's not protected. But it's also important that the vaccine go through the process of getting fully reviewed and approved by the FDA.

STEIN: So a vaccine for young kids could finally be coming soon. But remember, this is likely to be a three-dose vaccine, with each dose spaced weeks or even possibly months apart. So it could take a while for all those little kids to get fully vaccinated, assuming enough parents can be convinced to get it.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks.

STEIN: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.