Covid cases and hospitalizations rising in US as vaccine rates for children lag

Rising coronavirus infections and hospitalizations across the US are spurring fears of an uncertain summer amid new calls for children to be vaccinated.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has now recommended a vaccine booster for children aged five to 11 after an advisory panel voted to back them, despite some experts disagreeing that they are necessary at this stage.

The CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, said in a statement that she “endorsed” the panel vote.

“To expand eligibility for Covid-19 vaccine booster doses, children five through 11 should receive a booster dose at least five months after their primary series,” she said.

The White House coronavirus response coordinator, Ashish Jha, told ABC’s Good Morning America on Friday that parents should “absolutely” be taking their children in that age group to get boosted, while ABC cited data showing fewer than 30% of those children in the US have received their first two doses.

Jha said he would take his 10-year-old to get boosted “probably in the next few days”.

Walensky said more than 18m booster doses have been administered to five- to 11-year-olds.

“We know that these vaccines are safe and we must continue to increase the number of children who are protected,” she said.

The advisers considered data from the CDC that showed protection from the initial two coronavirus vaccinations starts to wane over time, and that boosters in older age groups improved efficacy against severe Covid and hospitalizations.

The Food and Drug Administration authorized booster doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for the youngest age group so far.

But Paul Offit at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, who advises the US Food and Drug Administration, indicated to NPR in an interview last month that he was not wholly convinced.

For five- to 11-year-olds getting boosters, he said: “If there is clear benefit for a third dose – and to me, the definition of benefit is enhanced protection against serious illness – then, of course, get the third dose. But absent that, I don’t see a compelling reason to give a third dose now.”

Helen Keipp Talbot, a professor at Vanderbilt University, was the lone advisory panel member to vote against recommending young kids get boosters, arguing that the focus should be on increasing the overall vaccination rate in the age group.

“Boosters are great once we’ve gotten everyone their first round,” she said.

There are now about 100,000 new known infections with Covid-19 in the US daily, with many more probably unreported as fewer people are needing hospitalization than at the height of initial and recent waves of infection, and many are testing and convalescing at home.

Cases are rising in most states, up about 50% in the last two weeks, according to multiple outlets’ data reporting, including among children.

Meanwhile, the FDA is still reviewing data from vaccine maker Moderna before giving the green light to a vaccine for under-fives.

“I know a lot of parents who have kids under five who really, really want this,” said Jha, adding he hoped for news from the regulator in the next few weeks.

Jha also encouraged over-50s, who are eligible for a second booster, to get it now, not wait until any possible fall surge.

“There’s no reason to wait,” he said, adding that “we’ll see where things are in the fall.”

Companies are already looking into the possible need for redesigned Covid-19 vaccines for the fall to target new variants of concern.

Jha has urged the US Congress to pass a bill now stalled on Capitol Hill that includes crucial funding for continued Covid testing, treatments and vaccine development. The president, Joe Biden, has requested $22.5bn in fresh Covid funding.

“If Congress doesn’t step up we are going to have a lot of difficulties ahead. We are going to run out of treatments, we are not going to get the next generation of vaccines that other countries are starting to sign up for, we are going to run out of testing. It’s going to be a real challenge,” Biden said.

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