AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine will offer COVID-19 vaccines for young children at mass vaccination sites with regulators looking set to approve them this month, but pediatricians’ offices will likely play a larger role in inoculating kids under 5.
The likely federal authorization of a vaccine for the youngest kids comes as Maine has seen record infections among children with the omicron variant surge. But the state has struggled with vaccine uptake among school-age children in recent months, despite high vaccination rates among teenagers and adults.
The state is allowing health care providers to place vaccine orders now, and is planning to work with pediatricians and family practitioners to administer vaccines to younger kids once it is approved, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah said Wednesday. That would be similar to how most children are vaccinated against other diseases.
“What we’ve understood from CDC as well as in talking with parents and pediatricians is that a lot of parents as well as their doctors will prefer kids to be vaccinated in an office,” Shah said.
The vaccine will likely also be offered at large-scale sites, such as the Auburn Mall, Shah said, to meet initial demand. He said the agency is also looking into other geographic gaps with the goal of minimizing driving time for parents.
A federal Food and Drug Administration advisory committee is set to discuss emergency use authorization of the COVID-19 vaccine for children older than 6 months but younger than 5 years next Tuesday. It would then still need approval from the full FDA, as well as a recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The vaccine for young children is one-tenth the dosage administered to adults.
It has been an atypical authorization process because Pfizer, the vaccine maker, announced in December that it would be testing a third shot for children after a two shot, low-dose regimen did not produce as strong of an antibody response in kids between the ages of 2 and 5 as it did in young adults. The antibody response was higher in children younger than 2.
Despite the lower antibody response, the company said its data still showed two doses of the vaccine reduced symptomatic COVID-19 cases by more than 50 percent, and there were no safety concerns in the trial.
Shah said Wednesday that he was told the FDA opted to consider the two-shot vaccine “in light of the increase in cases of COVID-19 in cases” this winter. Federal regulators could authorize two shots at first and suggest a third shot later once better data are available.
COVID-19 cases among young children in Maine surged this winter with the rapid spread of the omicron variant. At least 2,500 kids younger than 5 tested positive for the virus in January, by far the highest total of any month since the start of the pandemic.
Babies and toddlers are also more likely to end up in the hospital with the virus compared to older kids. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 40 COVID-19 hospitalizations among children younger than 5, compared with only 35 among those between ages 5 and 19.
Maine has among the highest vaccination rates among elementary-aged children of any U.S. state, with about 42 percent of kids between the ages of 5 and 11 having received at least one dose since the vaccine for that age group was approved in early November. But that is significantly lower than the vaccination rate among teenagers and older adults, about 86 percent of whom have received at least one dose here, according to state data.
The state’s vaccine program is allowing health providers to place initial orders for child vaccines this week, with the first set of orders expected to arrive Feb. 21, according to a state memo issued this week. Providers must wait to administer vaccines until they are federally authorized.