Scientific advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday unanimously endorsed the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for use in children aged 5 through 11 in the United States, a move that will buttress defenses against a possible surge as winter arrives and ease the worries of tens of millions of pandemic-weary parents.
If Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the agency’s director, formally accepts the recommendation, as expected, inoculations for children aged 5 to 11 could begin as soon as this week. The Food and Drug Administration on Fridayauthorized the vaccine for emergency use in younger children following a near-unanimous recommendation from its own advisers last week.
Dr. Walensky made a brief appearance as the meeting began, noting that the day was “one that many of us have been very eager to see.”
Still, she cautioned that vaccinating children is just one important piece to the puzzle. “It is important that we also continue to vaccinate as many adults as possible to provide protection to children in the community,” she said, including those children younger than age 5 who are not yet eligible for vaccination.
Anticipating the agency’s decision, the Biden administration has enlisted more than 20,000 pediatricians, family doctors and pharmacies to administer the vaccines.
About 15 million doses are already being packed with dry ice, loaded into small specialized containers and shipped via airplanes and trucks to vaccination sites across the country, federal officials said on Monday. Several million pediatric doses should be available in the next few days, but the vaccination program for the age group will only start “running at full strength” in the second week of November, said Jeffrey D. Zients, the administration’s pandemic response coordinator.
The younger children will receive one-third of the dose authorized for those 12 and older, delivered by smaller needles and stored in smaller vials to avoid a mix-up with adult doses.
The C.D.C.’s guidelines for the vaccine’s use are not legally binding, but heavily influence the medical community’s practice. An endorsement would be timely, as Americans begin to plan for the winter holidays.
Although cases in the United States have been falling steadily for weeks, experts warn that indoor family gatherings during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays may send the rates soaring again, even if not to the horrific highs of last year. Airlines are preparing for what may be the busiest travel season since the start of the pandemic.
Vaccinations would ease the minds of many parents who are anxious to protect their young children and frustrated by frequent school shutdowns and quarantines. Outbreaks of the coronavirus forced 2,000 schools to close between early August and October. Every million doses given to children aged 5 to 11 would prevent about 58,000 cases and 226 hospitalizations in that age group, according to a C.D.C. estimate.
The C.D.C.’s advisers also evaluated information on the vaccine’s risks. There was enough data to conclude that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks, even without more long-term safety data, said Dr. Matthew Daley, a senior investigator at Kaiser Permanente Colorado. “If we wait, we miss the chance to prevent many cases of Covid-19 in this age group, and that includes some very severe cases.”
Still, many parents are hesitant to immunize their children, citing concerns about long-term safety of the vaccine or because they fear that the vaccine is more harmful than Covid-19.
About three in 10 parents say they will definitely not get the vaccine for their 5- to 11-year-old children, according to the most recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation. A similar percentage of parents said that they would immunize their children “right away,” a figure that has barely budged since similar polls in July and September.
Before the F.D.A. advisers met last week, they were bombarded by thousands of emails spouting misinformation about the vaccine and asking the experts to vote against it. One common objection to the vaccine holds that children rarely get sick from the virus, and the vaccine’s potential harms may outweigh its benefits.
But while children are much less likely than adults to become seriously ill from the virus, their risk is not zero. Many children were infected with the coronavirus in the most recent surge, and children ages 5 through 11 accounted for nearly 11 percent of all cases the week of Oct. 10, according to data collected by the C.D.C.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 8,300 children ages 5 to 11 have been hospitalized with Covid, and at least 94 have died. About one-third of the hospitalized children were sick enough to be admitted to intensive care units.
Experts on the C.D.C. panel spent a significant portion of their time deliberating a rare side effect called myocarditis, inflammation of the heart. The risk is highest in males 16 to 29 years, but even in that group, a majority recover quickly. The risk appears to decline in children 12 to 15, and is expected to be even lower in younger children, experts said at the meeting. Covid is far more likely to cause myocarditis, and a more severe version of it, studies have shown.
The C.D.C. has not definitively linked any deaths from myocarditis to vaccination, said Dr. Matthew Oster, a C.D.C. scientist who presented myocarditis data at the meeting. “Getting Covid I think is much riskier to the heart than this vaccine, no matter what age or sex,” he said.
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.