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Babies, toddlers and preschoolers this week across Iowa began receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, the final group of Americans to be approved for immunization against the coronavirus.
This marks a critical moment for health care providers’ continued fight in the two-year pandemic, and is a long-awaited moment for some families whose youngest members still lacked protection.
“Some of these children we’re talking about, they were actually born during the pandemic,” Michael Brownlee, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics chief pharmacy officer, told reporters Wednesday.
“They haven't seen their grandparents, they haven't been able to socialize as they normally would have as a two-and-a-half year old. We've had day care closures, parents have had to adjust their schedules, maybe even change jobs to create a safe environment for their kids that were not eligible for the vaccine,” he said. “This is an important step for us to be able to close the loop and allow those families to be able to vaccinate their kids.”
Federal health officials late last week approved coronavirus vaccines for children 6 months to 5 years — 18 months after the shots were first administered to health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic. It also comes more than six months after kids aged 5-11 years were approved for the shots.
Two vaccines were approved for use: the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 6 months through 4 years, and the Moderna vaccine for kids ages 6 months through 5 years old.
Iowa Department of Public Health estimated there are approximately 195,000 children aged less than 5 in the state, according to department spokeswoman Sarah Ekstrand.
Nearly 20 million children fall under this age group nationwide.
As of this week, 23,500 pediatric doses have been delivered by the state to health care providers, including pharmacies.
Ekstrand said families should contact their child’s health care provider to check for available COVID-19 vaccines, or use the federally-run vaccines.gov website.
UI Health Care opened up a vaccine clinic for this age group Wednesday, which took place from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. According to Brownlee, the 200 appointment slots “filled up immediately.”
“For this age range, because of the impact on families, we've seen a spike of interest that may be slightly higher than what we saw with the 5 to 11 year-olds,” he said.
But finding available COVID-19 appointments for this age group has been a challenge this week for many families across Iowa, according to Todd Brady, an Ankeny-based software engineer who manages a website that aggregates vaccine appointments called Vaccine Hunter.
Brady said not many pharmacies or clinics were offering appointments in the first day of distribution, leaving some parents and guardians confused on where they can vaccinate their children.
In addition, under federal law authorizing pharmacies to distribute COVID-19 vaccines, these providers are allowed only to vaccine children aged 3 and older — meaning these appointments aren’t an option for the youngest Americans.
It’s a moment reminiscent of earlier in the pandemic, when limited supplies and high demand left Iowans feeling left behind, said Brady, who is running as a Democrat for state Senate District 21.
Initial delays in appointment availability is likely caused by the new dosing that is required for this age group, Brownlee said. Staff need to be trained on new vaccine dosage forms, and clinics are ensuring its systems have safety measures that keep patients from receiving the incorrect vaccine amount, he said.
The Pfizer vaccine for children under 5 is three 3-microgram doses — which is about one-tenth of the dose given to adults. The first and second doses are given between three to eight weeks apart, and the third dose is given about eight weeks after the second shot.
Children getting the Moderna vaccine will receive two 25-microgram doses given four to eight weeks apart. By comparison, those aged 12 and older receive two 100-microgram doses.
UI Health Care is taking a slower approach to vaccine roll out because of the new dosing requirements. Appointments were open this week at its Iowa River Landing location in Coralville, but officials have not opened appointments in other clinics yet “because we want to make sure we do it right with these new vaccines,” Brownlee said.
Brownlee said officials hope to expand to other locations, including those outside of Johnson County, by early next week.
UIHC officials also will evaluate opening more appointment slots at the Iowa Riving Landing clinic next week, but Brownlee noted staffing is posing a challenge to holding evening clinics.
Brady said he is eager to vaccinate his youngest son, who is 4. However, he has questions for the child’s pediatrician on whether he should wait until the child reaches his 5th birthday in the near future before scheduling his shots.
But according to Brownlee, parents shouldn’t wait and should vaccinate their child against the coronavirus as soon as possible.
Brownlee emphasized COVID-19 vaccines are safe for children aged 6 months through 5 years. Side effects from the shots are similar to those seen in older age groups, and include fever, fatigue and headaches.
Trials have shown both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are effective in preventing serious illness and hospitalization in young children.
“In kids, COVID is potentially lower risk, but it's not no-risk,” Brownlee said. “So it's important to note that it is really important to continue to focus on vaccination in kids of this age range.”
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