Hoosiers ages 5 to 11 are now eligible for a free COVID-19 vaccine, and local health officials hope that kids will get one dose before family gatherings at Thanksgiving.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday it has authorized the Pfizer pediatric vaccine for that age group.

“Having a COVID-19 vaccine available to our younger Hoosiers is a game changer in terms of our efforts to keep children healthy and in school for in-person learning,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box in a news release. “Fully vaccinated individuals do not have to quarantine if they are exposed but have no symptoms, so I encourage parents to get their children vaccinated if they are eligible.”

“Getting at least one dose in a child prior to Thanksgiving is important,” said Christine Stinson, Wayne County Health Department executive director. “Even one dose provides some level of protection for the others they will come into contact with, like their grandparents.”

WCHD has received 300 pediatric Pfizer BioNTech doses.  Families were in a line for a special evening clinic on Nov. 4 to get the vaccine.

Wayne County Health Officer Dr. David Jetmore said he would be helping at the Thursday evening clinic and is very happy to learn kids can begin getting the vaccine.

“We have been waiting a very long time to begin vaccinating our younger population,” Jetmore said. “I, personally, am very excited to get things going.”

Dr. Saira Butt, an infectious disease physician and assistant professor of clinical medicine at the IU School of Medicine, says in a news release that thankfully the number of deaths among kids from COVID-19 is lower than adults, but there have been 6.3 million cases of COVID-19 among children and more than 24,000 pediatric hospitalizations because of the virus to date.

“So, our kids are definitely not untouched by COVID-19,” Butt said. “We’ve seen positive pediatric cases with everything from no symptoms to severe disease, and there’s no way to predict how the virus will behave in any individual. Though we know a lot more about SARS-CoV-2 than we did a year ago, there are still many unknowns and potential risks with being infected.”

She said COVID is now one of the top 10 causes of death in children age 5 to 11.

One third of kids who are hospitalized for COVID-19 do not have any underlying conditions.

“It is important to protect the entire 5-to-11 age group from unpredictable symptomatic, severe or long consequences of COVID-19,” Butt said.

She acknowledged some parents want to wait for more data, but hopes they will move forward with vaccinating their children.

She said it might feel like the Pfizer and other mRNA vaccines have been developed quickly, but research on mRNA began decades ago, so it’s known how mRNA behaves in the body. Based on that knowledge, they don’t expect long-term effects.

Given the worldwide pandemic, Butt said a significant number of scientists and dollars were all focused on one cause, which allowed a much more concentrated effort to developing an effective vaccine.

All of the authorized and approved vaccines have gone through the Phase I, II and III clinical trials. There was no shortage of people wanting to participate in these trials, which allowed research to continue without stopping to recruit participants.

“The science and research are there to back up these vaccines, with no shortcuts taken in the process,” she said.

Butt said there is no evidence that getting a COVID-19 vaccine affects fertility.

“This myth, along with others about the mRNA vaccines, began in December 2020 and is based on misinformation about how the vaccine works,” she said. “Science and research have debunked this myth, and thousands of women have gotten pregnant post-vaccine.”

Butt noted some parents also being concerned about the risk of myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart, from vaccines. She said it is a very rare side effect of a COVID-19 vaccine, with about 26 cases per million doses of vaccine expected.

“While it is something to be mindful of, it is not a reason to avoid getting children vaccinated,” she said. “The risk and severity of myocarditis with actual COVID-19 infection is significantly higher than what has been seen with the vaccine.”

The health department will have the vaccine available regularly from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. Walk-ins are welcome until 3:30 p.m. Those younger than 18 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Appointments for the COVID-19 vaccines can be made by visiting www.ourshot.in.gov.

WCHD recently received a grant through the Indiana State Department of Health that will help provide more immunization clinics at local schools.

WCHD leaders are to meet Thursday with school superintendents to begin discussions about how each district would like to see the health department meet its needs.

“Bringing vaccinations to the community, instead of expecting the community to always come to us, has always been a barrier we have wanted to climb,” Stinson said. “This grant has been the ladder we have needed to breach that barrier.”

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Millicent Martin Emery is a reporter and editor for the Western Wayne News.