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Advisers to the CDC say kids as young as 12 should get COVID booster shots

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say adolescents should get COVID boosters. This endorsement of the FDA's authorization earlier this week clears the way for the CDC now to recommend boosters for teenagers. NPR's Pien Huang is here to discuss. Hey there, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So why? Let's start there because we've heard that kids are lower risk for COVID and for serious illness. Why get them boosted?

HUANG: So it is true that kids are generally at lower risk than adults, and omicron seems to be less severe across the board. But COVID is still COVID. And with the explosion of cases across the country - we're seeing over half a million new cases a day - Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president's chief medical adviser, says lots of kids are getting COVID.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: And as many more children will get infected, a certain proportion of them, usually children that have underlying comorbidities, are going to wind up in the hospital. That is just an inevitability.

HUANG: Currently, over 600 kids with COVID are getting hospitalized every day. That's the highest it's been this whole pandemic. And many of those cases are in kids that are not vaccinated. So this is the context in which the CDC's vaccine advisory committee met today. They heard updated safety data on the vaccines in this age group. And they voted, 13 in favor, 1 against, to recommend boosters for those 12 and up.

KELLY: Twelve and up - OK. Now, parents and teenagers themselves are going to be asking, what about the risks? So let's consider those. What risks and benefits did the CDC panel consider?

HUANG: Well, the main benefit of COVID vaccines and boosters are to prevent severe disease and death. And they also cut the risk of getting sick at all, especially in the weeks after getting the shot. The panel saw some data from Israel today that showed that kids 12 through 15 have been most likely out of any age group in that country to test positive, but getting booster shots helped cut those infections. And Dr. Sara Oliver from the CDC says boosters can help reduce COVID spread.

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SARA OLIVER: That as we specifically think through what may be relevant for this adolescent population specifically - a greater confidence in in-person learning, improved mental health with more social interactions and prevention of post-COVID conditions.

HUANG: There's now evidence that the vaccines and presumably boosters protect kids from getting MIS-C. This is a rare but serious condition for kids with COVID that can result in organ failure. Over 5,000 kids have gotten it. Fifty-two have died. And so the panel found that there are many reasons why protection from vaccines and the increased protection from booster shots would improve life and society for kids in this age group.

KELLY: Give us a little bit of context here. What are the numbers of adolescents getting vaccinated?

HUANG: Well, right now, around half of all 12- to 15-year-olds are fully vaccinated. And if the CDC allows it, around 5 million of them would be eligible to get a booster shot, meaning they're at least five months out from their second dose this week. Still, the panel is feeling that this vaccine uptake in this group was low. Vaccines have been available to those 12 and older since May. And there was a spike of interest at first, but it's really slowed down in the past two months. Over 8 million kids in this group still aren't fully vaccinated. Some parents were concerned about myocarditis, which is a rare, temporary heart inflammation that some young men are getting with the Pfizer vaccine. But others were more concerned about potential unknown long-term side effects, to which the panel said those are theoretical, unlikely, and they pale in comparison to health problems that are known to come from getting COVID now, including long-term heart and lung damage and long COVID.

KELLY: Now, I have to ask the - quickly, the question that parents of kids too young to get vaccinated are going to be asking. What about them?

HUANG: Yeah, absolutely. Well, in terms of kids under 5, Dr. Fauci said that trials are currently underway. He hopes that they'll be able to get vaccines by the earlier part of the first half of this year. And kids 5 to 11 have been eligible for shots since the beginning of November.

KELLY: NPR's Pien Huang, thank you.

HUANG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.