The U.S. enters a new phase Wednesday in its COVID-19 vaccination campaign, with shots now available to millions of elementary-age children in what health officials hailed as a major breakthrough after more than 18 months of illness, hospitalizations, deaths and disrupted education.
Kids between the ages of 5-11 years old are now eligible for Pfizer’s COVID-19 pediatric vaccine and the nation’s three largest pharmaceutical chains will begin inoculating that age group this weekend.
On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) greenlit the Pfizer pediatric vaccine — which is a third of the adult dosage. Rival Moderna has a pediatric vaccine candidate still making its way through the authorization process.
According to statements, Walgreens and Rite Aid will begin administering the jabs on Saturday, Nov. 6 while CVS will do the same on Sunday, Nov. 7.
Walgreens said the jabs for this age group will only be available at select locations, so making appointments is "highly encouraged." Parents can already do so by visiting their website or by calling 1-800-Walgreens.
"Walgreens pharmacy team members have significant experience vaccinating children and adolescents, and are ready to immunize this newly eligible population safely and as quickly as possible," said Dr. Kevin Ban, Walgreens’ chief medical officer. "The COVID-19 vaccine is just as important to protect children as other routine immunizations are, and the expanded eligibility will help children stay in school safely and prevent severe illness due to COVID-19."
The Food and Drug Administration last week paved the way for children ages 5-11 to get Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. The FDA cleared kid-size doses — just a third of the amount given to teens and adults — for emergency use, and up to 28 million more American children are now eligible for vaccinations.
A five year old child receives the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 Vaccine for 5-11 year old kids at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut on Nov. 2, 2021. (Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images)
The federal government had previously purchased enough doses to protect the 28 million children who became eligible Tuesday. Rite Aid expects the 10 microgram doses to arrive at stores by the end of this week. Appointments can be made through the chain’s scheduling tool, which will become available Thursday, Nov. 4.
CVS also stressed making appointments because Pfizer is the lone option for this age group and only select stores are participating.
"We know many parents have been waiting for the opportunity to vaccinate their young children and are looking for convenient access to a trusted resource for vaccinations," said Dr. Troyen A. Brennan, executive vice president and chief medical officer of CVS Health. "Our immunizers have been preparing for this important role, and stand ready to help answer parents’ questions, guide them and their children through the process, and administer the vaccines safely, with kindness and caring."
CVS was also accepting appointments online and by phone for vaccinations at select pharmacies.
By vaccinating children, the U.S. hopes to head off another coronavirus wave during the cold-weather months when people spend more time indoors and respiratory illnesses can spread more easily. Cases have been declining for weeks, but the virus has repeatedly shown its ability to stage a comeback, and more easily transmissible mutations are a persistent threat.
The shots for schoolchildren mean sleepovers, playdates and family get-togethers put off for more than a year will be back on the agenda for many kids, along with a chance for fewer school interruptions.
"There are children in the second grade who have never experienced a normal school year," Walensky said. "Pediatric vaccination has the power to help us change all of that."
Since the pandemic began, at least 94 children aged 5-11 have died from COVID-19, more than 8,300 have been hospitalized and over 5,000 have developed a serious inflammatory condition linked to the coronavirus. Black and Latino youngsters and those with chronic conditions are among the hardest hit.
But while some health authorities say minorities should be over-represented in COVID-19 vaccine studies because they are disproportionately affected by the virus, nearly 80% of kids in Pfizer’s study were white. Black youngsters totaled 6%, Latinos 21%, Asians 6% and less than 1% were American Indian or Alaska or Hawaii natives.
Infected kids have contributed to the U.S. toll — almost 46 million infections and more than 740,000 deaths.
This story was reported from Atlanta. Chris Williams contributed to this report.