More than a year-and-a-half after the Food and Drug Administration approved emergency use of the first covid vaccine, 17 million Americans have remained ineligible for the shot: kids under 5 years old.
The end is finally in sight for them, though—or, more accurately, for their parents.
On Wednesday night, the FDA’s vaccine advisers voted unanimously to authorize emergency use of two vaccines for children under 5, who, until now, were ineligible for the shots. The remainder of the approval process is largely a formality. The Moderna vaccine will be authorized for children under 6, and the Pfizer/BioNTech shot will be authorized for children under 5.
The New York Times reported that parents could be able to book appointments for shots as early as next week. The news is welcome, after an unexpectedly long wait due to vaccine trial failures: Parents were expecting vaccines to be available for children under 5 at the beginning of 2022, but in early February, the FDA delayed the shots for at least two more months, saying that it needed more data on whether or not three doses of Pfizer would be effective. Later that month, another data set showed that Pfizer actually offered very little protection against infection in children under 11.
Alex Segura, a writer and father living in Queens, New York, told me via email that he’s finally enjoying a bit of relief. “It felt like younger children, and other groups, like the immunocompromised, for one, were forgotten in the rush to ‘get back to normal,’” he said. “If our family’s learned anything over the last few years, it’s to take the small win and use that as a boost while you continue to deal with other setbacks.”
That sense of relief as a respite from other ongoing calamities rings true for Carolyn Chang, a mother in Austin, Texas, who holds a PhD in infectious diseases and whose husband has been working as a critical care nurse in the emergency room and covid ICU. “I feel like we have been screaming into a void for help since early 2020,” she said.
For many families, the timing of the approval feels a bit like a cruel joke. Stephanie Tinsley Fitzwilliam’s vaccinated 5-year-old came home from school with covid earlier this week, getting the whole family sick, including their unvaccinated 2-year-old—after more than two years of the family following strict safety protocols and just days before the FDA’s unanimous vote.
“I cried when I got the New York Times alert, like it’s a huge deal. But I also got all teary because watching him go through this unvaccinated … I’m literally living my worst nightmare from the last two and a half years this week,” Tinsley Fitzwilliam told me in an interview. “There’s been a couple of times where my children have had coughing fits in the last few days and they couldn’t breathe. That is horrifically terrifying. So the timing is incredible and so ironic. The news is awesome, but this has been a journey of hell for us.”
Other parents are facing similar dilemmas. Rachel Mills, based in Houston, said via email that her family lasted 2 years and 94 days without covid, only to get sick the same week the vaccine for young children was approved. Her 6-year-old son tested positive on Tuesday after going to school masked, and now she and her partner are isolating him separately from their 19-month-old daughter.
Tara Hanna, a New Jersey mom with two kids under 5, also described the news as “bittersweet.” Her family has been through five 10-day quarantines in the past year due to covid cases at her children’s daycare. And though the news is exciting, Hanna pointed out that the authorization marks the start of another logistical nightmare for some parents.
“Despite the approval of vaccines, many local pediatricians are in no rush to have them delivered,” she said (and children under 3 cannot be vaccinated at pharmacies). “After all this wait for approval, protection for my children is still apparently a low priority.”
Stay-at-home parent Kaz Werner, who is based in Seattle, was overjoyed by the news and said she’s doing a lot of pretend play around vaccinations with her 3-year-old, Rosie, to get her prepared for the “sting.” But Rosie’s doctor told Werner last week that the vaccine wouldn’t be available for a “couple of weeks.” The county’s public health department also said it would be a “few weeks” and that kids under 5 would “eventually” be able to get their shots at vaccine clinics. Pharmacies gave her the same answer.
“It is infuriating to me that despite all the delays, nobody seems ready to get these shots in these little arms,” she said.
The relief over the vaccine approval—even with its accompanying logistical complications—comes on the heels of several debilitating developments that have primarily impacted women and pregnant people. CVS, Walmart, Kroger, and retailers across the country have been all but wiped out by supply chain issues that turned into a full-blown tampon shortage over the last several weeks. In May, production stoppages led to a nationwide baby formula shortage, leaving shelves empty in stores across the country and sending parents scrambling to feed their babies into a panic. On top of that, more than 10% of childcare jobs have been unfilled since the start of the pandemic.
For Tinsley Fitzwilliam, the vaccine is a “spike of really good news in a sea of never ending bullshit for women” and families.
“No, you can’t get abortion, but also, no, you can’t have support once you have that baby. Figure out a way to get your baby its own vaccine,” she said. “And oh, by the way, why don’t you just breastfeed because sorry, we’re out of formula. And, you know, maybe wear pads instead of tampons. When you put it like that ... holy shit.”