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Within minutes of the Food and Drug Administration’s decision Friday to approve the lower dose of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11, teams began packing the vaccines to be shipped. The vials are packed with syringes, dry ice and tracking labels and are loaded into shipping containers specially designed for the pediatric vaccine.
But a White House senior official warns parents should not expect to be able to get their children vaccinated as early as the next day if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the vaccine, as expected on Tuesday. Patience may be needed as it may take several days before shots are readily available.
“We’re talking about a specialized vaccine for children,” said Jeff Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, in an exclusive interview with NPR. “We are hard at work, planning the logistics and ensuring that vaccines will be available in tens of thousands of places that parents and children know and trust.”
The process is not as simple as simply opening up appointments at pharmacies as it was when adult boosters were approved in recent weeks. Younger children will receive a smaller dose delivered via smaller needles to smaller arms. It’s a different wording, in a different packaging – a new program for a new population that requires greater sensitivity.
“We encourage parents to get ready and make a plan, and the program will be fully up and running in the week of November 8,” Zients said.
Last week, the administration asked states, pharmacies and pediatricians to order vaccine doses, and the administration and Pfizer are now working to get the supplies prepositioned.
“Our goal is to get as much vaccine as possible pre-deployed as we await the CDC’s decision by the middle of next week,” Zients said.
Zients said vaccines are being shipped to 20,000 locations around the United States, and the process of packing and shipping will take time. He said that pending the CDC’s decision, parents should be able to start finding appointments by the end of next week (sites offering vaccines to children will be listed on vaccines.gov).
“While we hope to see the first set of children begin to be vaccinated by the end of next week, the majority of the vaccines will be in their places by the week of November 8,” Zients said. “Every now and then, the program will ramp up to its full strength.”
In the United States, 28 million children are ages 5 to 11, and the White House is beginning to push out 15 million vaccine doses, with more on the way. It has ordered enough doses to vaccinate all eligible children in the country, though it does not expect every single one of them to roll up their sleeves.
While some parents will struggle to vaccinate their children in primary school as soon as possible, the Biden administration expects many others will have questions or do not want to go first. Zients says the government will launch a campaign with paid advertising as well as efforts to get the word out through trusted local leaders and doctors and high-profile national celebrities.
The FDA granted emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine to children ages 5 to 11 based on a study of approximately 4,700 children. The vaccine was found to be safe and 90.7% effective in preventing symptomatic disease.
An important part of the Biden administration’s plan for vaccinating children is to get vaccines into places that parents are already taking their children to for health care: pediatricians and family doctors, pediatric hospitals and neighborhood pharmacies. There will also be pop-up and mobile clinics and eventually school-based clinics, in the evenings or on weekends, where families have time off.
For pediatrician Nicole Baldwin, this moment is both exciting and scary. “We love these children and we want to vaccinate them,” she said, adding that a pediatrician’s office would be a familiar place for young patients already coming for well visits and other pediatric vaccines.
“Pediatricians’ offices are so tense and overwhelmed right now,” said Baldwin, whose practice is in Ohio. “How do we get these patients in? How do we make these clinics? How do we have time to document all this? So I think it needs to be realized and pediatricians need to have a little bit of grace.”
NPR’s Allison Aubrey contributed reporting to this story.