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Approximately 28 million children are now eligible for Pfizer's lower-dose vaccine

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

School-age children are now eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19. That's after CDC Director Rochelle Walensky officially recommended Pfizer's lower-dose vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds. Her official recommendation came just hours after a CDC advisory group voted unanimously in favor of recommendation. NPR health policy correspondent Selena Simmons-Duffin is here to explain what happened and what happens next.

And first, Selena, Director Walensky acted fast, right? How much of a surprise was this?

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: There was little doubt that she would recommend this vaccine. She actually spoke at the outset of the advisory meeting today, and she made clear she believes this is important and it's the right thing to do.

CORNISH: But was the unanimous vote from the advisers a given?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That was much less so given. The vote came after a day-long meeting, which had presentations from Pfizer and CDC scientists who had painstakingly gone through the data. Going into today, I honestly wasn't sure what was going to happen. The FDA advisory meeting last week considering authorization of this vaccine got a little contentious, so there were questions like, would only kids who didn't have a history of having COVID-19 be recommended to get this vaccine, or would only children with certain conditions that put them at higher risk? But over the course of the day, it became clear that these 14 outside scientists were convinced and that they were going to vote to recommend vaccine for all children 5 to 11 years old. Here's Dr. Oliver Brooks explaining his take away at the end of the day-long meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OLIVER BROOKS: The bottom line is the data showed here today that the vaccine is safe and effective, so children are dying, and we can reduce hospitalizations, cases and deaths with this safe and effective vaccine that will benefit the community.

CORNISH: You know, Selena, despite this kind of messaging, there are still polls showing that many parents aren't sure about vaccinating their kids, at least in this age group. Will this vote make a difference?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, we'll have to see. I mean, this vaccine has been a hypothetical for parents for a long time, and it's kind of different now that it's going to be a real option, especially right now; cases seem to be going down. Kids often only get mild illness when they're infected with COVID-19. But the scientists who presented today made the points that the pandemic is not over, spread is still high all around the country and that otherwise healthy kids can get very sick. Public health officials are very aware that uptake might be low. It was slow when 12- to 17-year-olds first became eligible as well. Dr. Matthew Daley, who's a member of the advisory group, took the time at the end to speak directly to parents who had questions. He said that's understandable, and we hear you loud and clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTHEW DALEY: And so I would just encourage you to talk to your child's pediatrician or family physician. Ask your questions. Tell them what your concerns are. They know your child. They know his or her medical history. They know your family. And they can just help walk through this with you, but we're all here to listen.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Other advisers mentioned they're parents and grandparents of children in this age group. They've looked at the data, and they think it's safe and effective and plan to get their loved ones vaccinated.

CORNISH: What could be the timetable in this case?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, it could all happen really quickly. The vials of these lower-dose vaccine - a third of the dose of the adult vaccine - has already gotten shipped out to lots of places around the country. The White House has been hustling on logistics. But officials have also warned it's going to take a few days to get everything in place in pediatricians' offices and pharmacies. Experts do say they expected this rollout to be less hectic than the adult vaccine rollout. They have plenty of vaccine this time, which should help, and the rollout is expected to be full-steam next Monday, the week of November 8.

CORNISH: In the meantime - children under the age of 5.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, trials for babies as young as 6 months old are ongoing, but FDA has said consideration for vaccinating that group is still a few months away.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin.

Thank you.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.