Updated COVID-19 booster vaccines were recently authorized to include children as young as 5 years old, and Illinois health officials are supporting wide access with the goal of boosting protection against newer strains of the virus.
The Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control green-lighted the eligibility expansion on Wednesday. Dr. Sameer Vohra, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said in a statement Friday that the new scope of access comes at a critical time in Illinois.
According to IDPH data, 16 counties are rated at a “medium” level of community COVID. In the past week, 10,416 new cases of the virus, including 52 deaths, have been reported in the state. Following a national trend, the state has also seen a “sharp increase in severe childhood respiratory infections,” according to Vohra.
“The updated bivalent COVID-19 booster, along with the flu vaccine, give parents two powerful tools to protect their children from severe illness and hospitalization,” Vohra said. “With the increase in childhood respiratory illnesses already happening, and the possibility that illnesses like COVID-19 and influenza will increase later this fall and winter, now is the best time to get these safe and effective vaccinations.”
The updated booster doses, which were changed to specifically target the omicron COVID variant and the now dominant highly infectious subvariants, were originally released in September. Officials recommended that eligible members of the community get their booster shots before Halloween, in an effort to provide extra protection during the winter and upcoming holidays.
The shots come as Dr. Alison Arruadi, Chicago’s public health commissioner, expressed concern earlier this week about the upcoming flu season, saying “all signs point” to a dramatic increase in cases and hospitalizations linked to the flu virus .
“The southern hemisphere had a very bad flu season this winter. Australia is coming off the worst flu season it has had in five years, with levels far higher than they have seen in the previous year,” Arwadi said during a Facebook Live session. “All signs point to this being a pretty bad flu season, and my concern is that if we had a bad flu season on top of a bad COVID season, that really has the potential to put our healthcare systems at risk.”
Arwadi said any increase in COVID cases could potentially put a severe strain on the health care system if the flu season is bad, and noted that her concern for children is growing because RSV cases are already on the rise among the younger population.
“We’re already seeing a big increase in respiratory viruses in general, even before the flu has started in earnest,” she said. “We’re seeing our pediatric hospitals fill up with children admitted with RSV and other childhood viruses.”
In an interview Thursday with NBC 5’s Lauren Petty, Arwadi stressed that the new COVID booster, which is available for children as young as 5, is critical to preventing a possible spike in the next few months.
“Everybody gets [the booster] that’s how we hope to avoid trouble here this fall and winter,” she said.
Since eligibility has been expanded to children, Arwady recommended that everyone 5 and older get the new booster shot, saying the recommended time frame is 6 months after your last booster shot.
Arwadi also said he expects filming to begin in the Chicago area as early as next week.
“We plan to start on Monday, assuming there are no delivery issues,” Arwadi said. “Your pharmacy, your doctor’s office is authorized to start giving it to those 5 and up.”
With the cold weather on the rise, Arwadi emphasized the importance of staying healthy before the holidays, saying, “You can get your COVID shot and your flu shot and get one in each hand if you want. It is more important than ever that you do this.”
Here’s what we know right now about the new photos available for kids:
What vaccines can children receive and who is eligible?
The FDA approved Pfizer’s bivalent injections on Wednesday for children of elementary school age, or between the ages of 5 and 11, and a version from competitor Moderna for children as young as 6.
The CDC, which recommends how the vaccines are used, also backed down hours later.
Only people who received their initial vaccinations – with either version of the original formula – are eligible for an updated booster. The booster can only be given at least two months after completing a primary or booster vaccination in children, the FDA said.
Less than a third of 5- to 11-year-olds received their two primary doses and would therefore qualify for the new booster dose.
When can filming start?
Pfizer said it could supply up to 6 million doses for children within a week of the approval, in addition to current supplies of doses for adults.
“My guess is that the earliest it will be potentially next week or maybe the week after that, we will have bivalent vaccines available for 5- to 11-year-olds,” said Dr. Alison Arwadi, Chicago’s commissioner of public health, in Tuesday, prior to authorization.
Is the dosage different for children?
That age group will get children’s doses of the new omicron-targeted booster — and they can get it at least two months after their last dose, whether it was their main vaccination series or an earlier booster, the FDA said .
For the updated booster, made by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, 5- to 11-year-olds will receive a third of the dose that everyone 12 and older already receives.
Until now, Moderna’s updated booster was only allowed for adults. The FDA just expanded this bivalent dose for adults to 12- to 17-year-olds and authorized half the dose for children ages 6 to 11.
Are there safety concerns?
Updated boosters are “extremely important” to keep kids healthy and in school, said Dr. Jason Newland, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Washington University in St. Louis.
Parents should know that “there is no safety concern with bivalent vaccines, whether it’s Moderna or Pfizer,” Newland added.
How do divalent shots differ?
Experts say the updated shots have an advantage: they contain half the recipe targeting the original strain of the coronavirus and half the protection against the dominant BA.4 and BA.5 omicron versions.
These combined or “bivalent” boosters are designed to extend immune defenses so that people are better protected against serious illness, whether they encounter an omicron relative in the coming months – or a different mutant that looks more like the original virus.
“We want to have the best of both worlds,” Pfizer’s Dr. Bill Gruber, a pediatrician, told The Associated Press. He hopes the updated footage will “rekindle interest in protecting children in winter”.
Why should children get it?
“As children have returned to school in person and people are resuming pre-pandemic behaviors and activities, there is the potential for increased risk of exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19. Vaccination remains the most effective measure for preventing the severe consequences of COVID-19, including hospitalization and death,” Dr. Peter Marks, chief of the FDA’s Division of Vaccines, said in a statement. “While it is largely the case that the COVID -19 tends to be milder in children than in adults, as different waves of COVID-19 have occurred, more children have contracted the disease and been hospitalized. Children can also experience long-term effects, even after an initial mild illness. We encourage parents to consider primary vaccination for children and follow-up with an updated booster dose when eligible.’
How much protection do the shots provide?
Exactly how much protection does the updated booster shot offer against COVID-19? That’s hard to know. Pfizer and Moderna begin trials in young children.
But the FDA approved the COVID-19 booster tweaks without requiring human test results — just as it approves annual flu vaccine changes. That’s partly because both companies have already studied experimental shots altered to target previous variants of COVID-19, including an earlier version of omicron, and found that they safely activate antibodies that fight the virus.
“This is clearly a better vaccine, an important upgrade from what we had before,” Jha said earlier this week.
Jha urged adults to get an updated vaccine in October — the same way they get their flu shot — or at least well before holiday gatherings with high-risk family and friends. People who have recently had COVID-19 still need a booster but can wait about three months, he added.
What about children under 5?
As for the even younger ones, the first vaccinations for the under-5 age group didn’t open until mid-June — and it will be several more months before regulators decide whether they, too, will need a booster using the updated prescription.