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CDC's Walensky made the final call to approve COVID vaccines for young kids

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're hearing from parents who are already making appointments to get shots for kids under 12. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved COVID vaccines for 5 to 11 year olds. Twenty-eight million children are eligible. Millions of parents are surely relieved, although others have doubts.

So let's talk this through with Dr. Rochelle Walensky. She is director of the CDC and made the final call to approve the Pfizer vaccine for kids under 12. Dr. Walensky, welcome back to the program.

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Thank you so much, Steve. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Was this a hard call for you?

WALDENSKY: You know, this was such a celebratory moment. We had unanimous voting among our experts on the advisory panel after they reviewed the evidence of all of the risks of COVID to our children between the ages of 5 to 11. They reviewed the compelling safety data, as well as the compelling efficacy of this vaccine. And as I noted, it was a unanimous vote. And really, this should bring parents peace of mind that they now have a vaccine that they can give to their children and protect them from COVID-19.

INSKEEP: I want to say, as someone who's gotten the vaccine, I felt personally, I don't know, bad. Just - it's not right. It hasn't felt right to not be able to protect my kid under 12 while protecting myself. You feel like it should be the opposite. But of course, this is not the way that all parents have seen it. So let's talk through the evidence. First, the benefits - are the benefits that great, given that relatively few children under 12 have died of COVID?

WALDENSKY: You know, children under 12 have done well compared to our elderly population. That is true. But what we have seen and what the evidence we reviewed yesterday demonstrated is that this is not a benign disease in our young children. And in fact, people - we've lost children to this disease, children ending up in the hospital, in the ICU, long COVID, more so than many other vaccine preventable diseases for which we vaccinate our children. And so when we saw the evidence of the risk of COVID to our young children, we also saw this incredible efficacy of this vaccine - 91% effective against preventing infection. And then we saw really compelling safety data. You know, the side effects of this vaccine for our young children were really the very similar to the side effects that adults have. They might have fatigue, a headache, low-grade fever. And the most common one was a sore arm, which goes away in a day or two. So overwhelmingly, the evidence demonstrated that the benefits of this vaccine certainly outweigh the risks of the disease itself.

INSKEEP: Was there any sign in the trials of serious side effects, something considerably worse than what you just described?

WALDENSKY: I'm so glad you asked. There was not a single case of a severe side effect from this vaccine in the trials.

INSKEEP: That's great to know. There have been cases of heart issues with other young people - not quite so young. Is that correct?

WALDENSKY: You know, this - I think what you're referring to is myocarditis.

INSKEEP: Yes.

WALDENSKY: And what I really want to say is that we have taken the time to do this right. That was absolutely something that we were looking at and looking for. It is one of the reasons that the dose of this vaccine for our younger children is a lower dose. It's the standard Pfizer vaccine, but the dose is lower for our young children - and again, not a single case of myocarditis in the trials.

INSKEEP: So let's presume that lots of parents do go out and get their kids this vaccine. How might this at least potentially change the landscape for people who are sending their kids to school and worried every day about their kids at school?

WALDENSKY: You know, I think it's going to take us some time to scale up. And certainly we're going to need to do the hard work of education and communication and information to parents so that we can have all parents want to get their children vaccinated. But we're really hopeful about what this will bring to the prevention interventions in our classrooms to get back to sort of getting back to a normal life after this pandemic.

INSKEEP: Does that mean that we can foresee - even if you don't know a date - we can foresee the moment when maybe kids are not having to wear masks all day in the classroom?

WALDENSKY: You know, what I really want to do now is the hard work of making sure that parents get themselves vaccinated and that we get our children vaccinated, but that would be a really terrific goal.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about getting people vaccinated then. Can people go out today and get this vaccine?

INSKEEP: So the pediatric vaccines have begun distributing. We began distributing just after the advisory - the authorization from the FDA on Friday. We are scaling up to full capacity. It's available in some places. But we'll be at full capacity next week, with more than 20,000 sites across this country. Importantly, we understand where parents want to get their kids vaccinated. We know where many vaccinations occur already for childhood and prevention of childhood diseases, and much of that is in pediatricians offices. So we're distributing the vaccine to pediatricians offices. It'll be in pharmacies. It'll be in federally qualified health centers. And that's where people are getting their children vaccinated.

INSKEEP: Is that where people should also be going if they continue to have questions about the benefits, about the side effects, about whether this should be right for someone who's 5 to 11?

WALDENSKY: That's absolutely true. We want people to get the information that they need so that they feel comfortable. We recognize for parents that this is new. And so we want to give parents the information they need - so their pediatrician, their pharmacist, their trusted health care provider - absolutely.

INSKEEP: Somebody's listening - maybe lots of people listening - who has a kid under 5, who's asking, what about me? What about my kid? What about my family? What can you tell them?

WALDENSKY: Yes - most importantly, the best way to protect the people who can't yet get vaccinated is to surround them by people who are. So first and foremost, get yourself vaccinated; get your older children vaccinated so that we can shield the younger kids who can't yet be vaccinated from any disease around them. Next, of course, we are working hard now to make sure that we can bring vaccines to those younger children - again, doing the absolute due diligence. And we're anticipating seeing trial data early in 2022.

INSKEEP: Trial data early in 2022 - can you talk me through that a little more? You're telling me that Pfizer or other companies are already doing trials?

WALDENSKY: Absolutely, enrolling in trials down to 6 months of age.

INSKEEP: And so if you get that information in early 2022, that can be a relatively quick turnaround, as this as this was for 5 to 11 year olds?

WALDENSKY: We are really hopeful. And, of course, we are working with urgency. FDA is working with urgency. CDC is partnering with the FDA and working with that urgency. And as soon as we have those data available, we want to bring vaccine to children.

INSKEEP: So talk me through the pandemic more broadly over the next couple of months, Dr. Walensky. We're now in this situation where we seem to be past the worst of the delta surge. Cases in the United States, while certainly not pleasant, are a lot better than they were in terms of the numbers. You're able to expand vaccination. But we are heading into winter. What kind of winter can we expect?

WALDENSKY: You know, I'm really encouraged that cases are now about 50%, 60% of what they were in our peak of our delta surge. But as you know, we are at 70-, 75,000 cases per day still. We're still at about a thousand deaths a day. And that's too high. So we are really asking people to do the hard work of getting themselves vaccinated, getting their children vaccinated and continuing to practice those prevention strategies that we know work - the masking, the distancing, the hand-washing. We know those strategies work as we head into these winter months.

INSKEEP: Do you feel that you need to tell people, listen, another surge is still possible?

WALDENSKY: You know, I think that is all in our capable hands, right? As we - if we scale up our prevention interventions, if we get more people vaccinated, that is going to be up to us.

INSKEEP: Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, thanks for your time this morning.

WALDENSKY: Thanks so much, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.