Updated COVID-19 booster shots are now available for California’s youngest children, a welcome development for officials hoping to increase immunization coverage and prevent a virus resurgence this winter.
However, availability and uptake are two different things. And given the meager immunization coverage among adolescents under 5 years of age, as well as modest overall demand for the new bivalent doses, it remains to be seen whether this recent expansion of eligibility will significantly increase the number of vaccines administered.
One initial caveat is that most children in this age group have not yet been vaccinated against COVID-19.
“We’re always concerned about lower childhood immunization rates,” said Barbara Ferrer, director of public health for Los Angeles County, “particularly because, as we’ve seen, some children are still getting seriously ill.”
US regulators this month cleared the way for children ages 6 months to 5 years to receive the updated bivalent COVID-19 vaccines, which are formulated to protect against both the ancestral strain of coronavirus and protect against the Omicron subvariants that have dominated much of this year.
“The most important thing for us is that it reduces the serious consequences such as hospitalization and death, but may even help reduce symptomatic illness,” said Dr. Peter Marks, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine chief, during a discussion hosted last week by the COVID-19 Vaccine Education and Equity Project.
Considering that, “I think it’s a good idea once your kid has received the elementary school series to start thinking about strengthening it,” Marks said. And if not, “as we’re still on the uptrend of another winter wave of COVID-19, it’s a great idea to consider getting your child vaccinated for the launch of the elementary school series.”
Children 6 months to 5 years of age who have received the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are eligible for the updated Moderna bivalent booster vaccine two months after completing their primary series.
For children 6 months to 4 years of age who have started but not completed their Pfizer-BioNTech 3-dose primary series, the last dose is the updated bivalent booster. Children in this age group who have completed their three-dose series with the older vaccine are not eligible for the bivalent booster at this time.
Residents can book vaccination appointments through the state’s online platform, MyTurn.ca.gov, or by calling (833) 422-4255. For immunocompromised children, officials recommend contacting their doctor.
Those who live in Los Angeles County can visit VaccinateLACounty.com for additional resources or to find a vaccination center nearby.
So far, just 7% of California children under the age of 5 have completed their first basic immunization course, by far the lowest of any age group, state data shows. This means that approximately 2 million adolescents are currently ineligible for the bivalent refresher.
In a statement to The Times on Thursday, the California Department of Health acknowledged the low uptake among the youngest children, but said, “This is to be expected given that vaccines for this group were not available until much later.”
Although the very first COVID-19 vaccines were issued on a limited basis from December 2020, vaccinations for the youngest children only became available in June of this year.
“We hope demand will continue to grow as more Californians learn of this newer authorization,” the statement continued. “Both the original COVID-19 vaccines and the bivalent doses have undergone rigorous scientific review to confirm their safety and efficacy across age groups.”
However, timing may not be the only factor at work. In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 45% of parents of children aged 6 months to 4 years said they would “definitely not” vaccinate their children, while 20% said they would only do so if needed to do.
Reasons given by respondents included concerns that the syringes were too new and not adequately tested or researched, as well as concerns about potential side effects and overall safety. Some parents also said they didn’t think the vaccinations were necessary or that they weren’t worried about COVID-19.
“We have seen that these vaccines are very safe and very effective,” Ferrer said Thursday. “I think it’s our job as public health practitioners to continue to have conversations with people in the community and make sure they have good information so they can make the best decision for themselves and their children and their community.”
But the uneasiness and unwillingness linger, even as officials and experts emphasize that vaccines remain one of the best ways to prevent one from contracting and becoming seriously ill with COVID-19.
And with levels of coronavirus transmission still elevated, as well as the imminent arrival of the holiday season, officials have said boosting now can have a powerful impact.
“Vaccines are one of those very safe medical interventions that are really incredibly beneficial than many of our other medical interventions,” Marks said.
The California Department of Health “continues to work diligently to provide information on the availability, efficacy and safety of the COVID-19 vaccines and boosters,” the statement said. “Recent data show that a bivalent dose provides significant additional protection against severe COVID-19 infection and may help protect against the worst outcomes of COVID-19, including hospitalization and death.”
Along with COVID-19, officials are urging residents to get vaccinated against the flu, which is hitting the nation with a vengeance not seen in years. The co-circulation of these and other viruses — including respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV — has strained healthcare systems across the country and state.
LA County recently reported that the number of hospital beds available statewide has fallen to the lowest level in the pandemic.
“While LA County hospitals are currently maintaining full capacity to care for anyone in need – and we encourage everyone to seek treatment if they have severe symptoms of illness, including difficulty breathing, severe chest pain, disorientation or trouble staying awake – is If this is the case, it’s important to recognize how easily hospitals can become stressed,” Ferrer said.
Cot availability has improved somewhat this month but also remains at one of the lowest levels in the last four years.
“Young children can be vulnerable to serious illnesses from respiratory viruses, including RSV and influenza. And if the levels are as high as they are now, the availability of beds in children’s hospitals can drop quickly,” Ferrer said. “As such, everyone is encouraged to take steps to curb transmission of respiratory viruses, including masking in indoor public spaces and staying at home if you are ill.”
Times contributor Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-12-26/omicron-boosters-for-the-youngest-children-are-here-will-they-make-a-difference How do I get an Omicron booster for children?