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White House COVID-19 response coordinator outlines timeline for vaccinating children

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The wait is over. Parents can breathe a sigh of relief. COVID-19 vaccines are now recommended for children as young as 6 months. Here to talk about getting vaccines in those little arms is Dr. Ashish Jha. He's the White House COVID-19 response coordinator. Dr. Jha, good morning.

ASHISH JHA: Good morning. Thank you for having me here.

RASCOE: Can you give us a quick overview? There are two options for this age group, and there are some differences. What do parents need to know?

JHA: Yeah. So there are two options - Moderna and Pfizer. People will not be surprised to hear that. What parents need to know is both of them are extremely safe, and both of them were found by the independent scientific experts at the FDA and CDC to be highly effective. So the good news is it's nice to have choices, and they both work really well. Now, Moderna is two shots, and Pfizer is three. And there are some other sort of subtle differences between them, but both of them were recommended for every child between 6 months and 5 years. And, you know, if you really want to try to figure out which one is better for you, talking to your pediatrician is a good idea. But both are really good choices for most kids.

RASCOE: And so what will a successful rollout look like because, you know, as you mentioned, most parents are going to have to rely on their pediatricians and not necessarily go to a pharmacy for vaccinations for these very young kids?

JHA: Yeah. So that's how this vaccination campaign will look different, Ayesha. You're absolutely right. We're not going to see mass vaccination sites. Some parents will go to pharmacies, and I think that's great. And others will go to children's hospitals. Many children's hospitals across the country are setting up sites, but I suspect probably a majority of parents will want to get their children vaccinated at their pediatrician or family physician office. And that means it's going to take time, that we're not going to see massive numbers in the first days and weeks, that this will build up over days and weeks and months as parents have the time to go in, have those conversations, and then get their children vaccinated.

RASCOE: You know, speaking of those conversations, right now, only about a third of people with children in this age range plan to get the shots as soon as possible. So what do you say to those who are on the fence or just resistant to do this?

JHA: Yeah, so I think of this in two ways. I mean, first, I think back to December 2020, when vaccines became first available for adults. Only about a third of adults said they were going to get vaccinated right away. And here we are 18 months later, and about 80% of adults have gotten at least one shot. So it's a reminder that vaccine confidence builds over time. What I say to parents is, you know, you've been barraged with so much false information about COVID and minimizing COVID. The truth is, tens of thousands of children have been hospitalized with COVID. Unfortunately, hundreds have died. And now we have a highly, you know, safe and effective vaccine that can prevent that. And so, again, talk to your family physician. Talk to your pediatrician. But, you know, these vaccines really are working, and you should get your children vaccinated.

RASCOE: You know, one thing that's come up, especially with the omicron wave, is, like, how effective and how long the protection will be for vaccines. So for these very young kids, how effective are these vaccines going to be against, like, omicron, and how long will the protection actually last?

JHA: Yeah, two good questions. What we have seen is that protection against infection can wane over time after a few months. But the key thing that these vaccines do is they keep people out of the hospital, including children. Children also develop this additional complication called multisystem inflammatory syndrome. These vaccines prevent that in substantial ways. So there are lots of ways in which that protection lasts for a long period of time, even if protection against just getting infected can wane.

RASCOE: You know, obviously adults can experience some side effects for a day or two following vaccination. What should parents be watching for when they're caring for their babies and their toddlers after getting, you know, the vaccine?

JHA: Yeah, we saw the same thing in the clinical trials for children - you know, 24 hours of - some children had fever. Others - just, you know, listlessness, not feeling totally normal, not eating in the same way. So what I would say is, you know, if - when you get your children vaccinated, expect that for 24 hours, they're going to need a little extra attention, a little extra TLC. Kids, again, in the clinical trials did extraordinarily well. But that first 24 hours was - you know, was not normal, was a little bit difficult for some children.

RASCOE: Dr. Ashish Jha is the White House COVID-19 response coordinator. Dr. Jha, thank you so much.

JHA: Thank you so much for having me here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.