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UNC Health is closely monitoring the situation regarding the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. As a precaution, we will follow the FDA’s recommendation and pause vaccinations using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine until federal authorities are able to review data and provide further guidance. Patients who were scheduled to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at UNC Health vaccination clinics today will be offered one of the other vaccines where possible or rescheduled as necessary. Severe reactions are rare. Click here for information on when to seek medical care.

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Kids won’t be able to receive the vaccines for several more months.

Every day, thousands more Americans are immunized from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) with the newly available vaccines. But, so far, these recipients are all adults, and parents might be wondering when children can receive a vaccine.

We talked to UNC Health infectious diseases experts Peyton Thompson, MD, MSCR and Cynthia Gay, MD, MPH, to learn more.

1. The COVID-19 vaccines have not yet been studied in children.

Although more than 100,000 people of all different races and ethnicities participated in the COVID-19 vaccine trials, the Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson studies did not include children younger than age 16, and the Moderna study did not include anyone younger than age 18.

“It is standard for a new vaccine that you test it on an adult population to make sure there’s not a safety concern (before you study it in children),” Dr. Gay says.

In addition, adults have been the most heavily affected with hospitalizations, severe infection and death for this particular virus—although at least 8,000 children have been hospitalized and 162 have died from the virus.

Pfizer and Moderna are now enrolling children ages 12 or older in clinical research studies on the effectiveness of these COVID-19 vaccines.

Pfizer began enrolling them in October, and Moderna started enrolling on the tenth of December. Johnson & Johnson plans to begin testing its vaccine in children and newborns this year.

But, clinical research studies take time, so it may be several months before we will know if and when children ages 12-15 can receive the vaccines, Dr. Thompson says. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will have to decide when there’s enough data to allow emergency use in this age group. Emergency use authorization is designed to make medicines, including vaccines, available during public health emergencies.

Currently, there are no studies underway for children under 12 in the United States, but there are plans to initiate trials in the near future to include younger children.

“We definitely need to study these vaccines in children because the immune response in children is not necessarily going to be the same as that in adults for these vaccines,” Dr. Thompson says.

2. Parents and children should continue to wear masks and practice social distancing.

Parents should consider receiving the COVID-19 vaccination if it becomes available to them. But it’s also important to remember that vaccines are just one important tool in our toolkit to fight COVID-19. We need to use all of our tools if we hope to end this pandemic.

This means it’s still important to adhere to the following safety measures—even after you or anyone else in your household receives a COVID-19 vaccine:

  • Wear a mask in public or around people outside your household.
  • Stay 6 feet apart from others whenever possible.
  • Wash your hands.
  • Stay home if you’re sick.

“We must continue to take every precaution possible,” Dr. Thompson says.

Why? The vaccines have been shown to be effective in preventing both mild and serious cases of COVID-19, but we don’t know yet if vaccination prevents you from spreading the virus to others even if you don’t have any symptoms.

Families can protect their young children and all people who don’t yet have vaccines by continuing to take precautions, Dr. Thompson says.

We need to think of it as a team effort, with everyone doing their part to get closer to normal life, Dr. Gay says. “I strongly encourage everyone to be just as vigilant with wearing your mask, social distancing, and limiting the number of people that we’re in contact with. All of that is going to get us closer to where everybody wants to be.”

3. Children age 12 and older can participate in COVID-19 vaccine trials.

If your child is age 12 or older and interested in participating in a COVID-19 vaccine trial, you can register on the national COVID-19 Prevention Network website and answer a few simple questions to see if he or she is eligible to participate in a COVID-19 clinical trial.

“If they’re interested in contributing to science and to the field,” Dr. Thompson says, “there are opportunities for that.”

Cynthia Gay, MD, MPH, is an associate professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases in the UNC School of Medicine. She leads the Moderna clinical trial at UNC and is a practicing physician and the medical director of the UNC HIV Cure Center.

Peyton Thompson, MD, is an assistant professor of pediatric infectious disease in the UNC School of Medicine. She is enrolling pediatric patients in a prospective study of COVID-19 in North Carolina alongside principal investigator Natalie Bowman, MD, MPH, (adult infectious diseases) and Eveline Wu, MD, MSCR (pediatric rheumatology).

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