SEARHC to administer shot for children starting this week

Haines Health Center will start administering the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 this week, following the FDA’s Oct. 29 emergency use approval and the CDC’s Nov. 2 recommendation.

SEARHC already has been administering booster shots for people older than 18 who received Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

At a Monday webinar, two state doctors presented information and fielded questions from residents about the vaccine. Alaska’s chief medical officer Anne Zink and Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) pharmacist Coleman Cutchins were both slated to attend but didn’t due to a scheduling change on their end.

DHSS pediatrician Mishelle Nace and pharmacist Jocasta Olp touched on numerous topics, including COVID-19 booster shots, data on the virus and vaccination in children, vaccine side effects and immunity after infection, among other things.

“It is true not only for the adults, the adolescents and now for the 5- to 11-year-olds that COVID-19 vaccines are effective. They are effective in preventing and keeping people out of the hospital, severe illness and death,” Nace said. “And they’re safe… Four hundred million vaccinations have been given here in the U.S.”

Preliminary data from a randomized controlled trial, cited by the FDA, showed that two doses of the vaccine were 90.7% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in children 5 through 11. In other words, although studies are ongoing, initial data suggest that a fully vaccinated child is significantly less likely to fall ill from COVID than a similar child who’s unvaccinated.

The pediatric dose of the Pfizer vaccine is a third of the adult dose, Nace said. Clinical trials cited by the FDA showed that a shot of that amount triggered an equivalent immune response in children 5 through 11 as the adult dose did in people 16 through 25.

Nace said there have been almost two million COVID-19 cases in children ages 5 through 11, including more than 8,000 hospitalizations, 2,300 cases of a severe inflammation, and 94 deaths. (That’s a CDC statistic, as of Oct. 16. The FDA reported, as of Oct. 17, 146 deaths in the age group.)

Some doctors nationwide have voiced concerns about a severe but rare vaccine side effect called myocarditis, inflammation of the heart. Given the low likelihood of severe COVID-19 illness in children, FDA panelists waited to approve the vaccine for emergency use until they felt confident that its benefit outweighed the risk of myocarditis. DHSS pharmacist Olp said that a risk-benefit analysis is still being done with regard to booster shots for adults between ages 18 and 65.

According to the FDA, the vaccine’s safety was monitored in 3,100 children, none of whom showed serious side effects in an ongoing study. The most common side effects were similar to those in adults: pain at injection site and mild to moderate flu-like symptoms, which in most cases dissipated within two days.

Nace presented a graph showing that, among adults, myocarditis occurs more frequently as a result of COVID-19 infection than vaccination.

The state doctors said children allergic to any ingredients in the vaccine definitely shouldn’t receive it. But allergic reactions are rare, below five cases per one million doses, Nace said.

On behalf of another resident, Haines Borough Emergency Operations Center representative Liz Cornejo asked the doctors about the prevalence of long COVID in children. (“Long COVID” refers to a wide set of health issues, including brain fog, fatigue and loss of smell, that can last for months after infection.) Nace said there is evidence of long COVID in children but scarce data at this point to show the likelihood of a child suffering from long COVID after getting vaccinated. She said one way for both adults and children to reduce the chance of long COVID is to mitigate the risk of infection, and vaccination helps do that.

Another resident asked about immunity following infection. Why, for example, does Canada at the border accept proof of infection within 180 days as an alternative to proof of a negative test, while the U.S. accepts proof of infection only within 90 days?

Nace said that difference boils down to a disparity in risk tolerance levels, various studies and a lack of certainty with data collection and analysis ongoing. “The immune system from natural infection is largely unpredictable about how long it lasts,” Nace said. “So although some up to six months might be fine, some it might be more like three months. Some it might be nine months. Some it could be longer. We don’t know the answer to that.”

SEARHC is administering vaccines on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Haines Health Center. Call or text 766-6300 to sign up.

“We recommend that you reach out to your family physician to discuss your specific health needs,” Haines Borough Mayor Douglas Olerud said at the webinar. “Our intent tonight is to support you in making an informed decision that is right for you and your children.”