The CDC has formally adopted a recommendation from a panel of its independent advisers to use Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine in adolescents age 12 to 15, clearing the final remaining federal hurdle to making the shots available to all Americans as young as 12.
"CDC now recommends that this vaccine be used among this population, and providers may begin vaccinating them right away," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement, calling the move "another important step to getting out of the COVID-19 pandemic, and closer to normalcy." Her announcement came after an hours-long meeting of the agency's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which voted 14-0 in favor of the vaccine for adolescents, with one member abstaining.
Though the Food and Drug Administration already granted emergency use authorization for the vaccine in kids ages 12 to 15 on Monday, only a small handful of states — including Georgia and North Carolina — had so far directed providers in their states to begin giving the shots to adolescents. The CDC says vaccinators are required to follow its recommendations, which before today's vote had only allowed for the shots to be used in people as young as 16.
To help reach families who want the shots, the Biden administration said the CDC is working with state officials to enroll more pediatricians and family doctors as vaccine providers and to make sure Pfizer vaccine supplies are available at local pharmacies.
Federal and local health officials are planning on a "stepwise approach" to rolling out Pfizer's shot for adolescents, CDC officials said, including adding new school-based vaccination programs later this year.
"This would include an early summer sprint in May and June, followed by increasing access in June and July, and a back-to-school campaign later in the summer, and at the start of the school year," CDC's Dr. Sara Oliver said.
Several members of the committee spoke passionately about the importance of the vaccine.
"This is a really important issue for this summer. It's also a very good way to provide better community immunity, especially for immunocompromised patients who have these teenagers in their families. And this is another way to get closer to ending this horrible pandemic," Dr. Camille Nelson Kotton, a top infectious diseases specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, said after voting in favor of the shot for adolescents.
The agency also will now allow for "coadministration" of COVID-19 vaccines with other shots, citing a growing body of evidence on the vaccine's safety.
Pediatricians had warned that the agency's previous guidance against getting any other shots within 14 days before or after the COVID-19 vaccine posed "very real risks" to hamper efforts to catch adolescents up on missed inoculations before the next school year.
CDC officials have warned for months that routine immunizations among children had plummeted amid the pandemic, down 11.7 million doses compared to 2019.
The FDA's review of Pfizer's data confirmed the company's clinical trial found the shots were safe and effective in adolescents, and that the side effects were "consistent" with older age groups. In the study, 97.9% of adolescents were found to have produced enough antibodies in the month after their second dose.
The CDC's move could add nearly 17 million people to the pool of Americans eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis. However, a poll taken by the group last month found just 30% of parents said they planned to get their kids in this age group vaccinated as soon as it was authorized. Another 25% said they wanted to wait and see.
"Understandably, some parents want more information before their children receive a vaccine," Walensky said. "I encourage parents with questions to talk to your child's healthcare provider or your family doctor to learn more about the vaccine."
While cases of COVID-19 are often milder in children, officials have said vaccinating younger Americans would help avert future surges of cases in the adults around them and could accelerate the lifting of some public health restrictions.
Walensky acknowledged hesitancy among some parents at a Senate hearing on Tuesday, but said she encourages parents to get their children vaccinated.
"I have a 16-year-old myself, and I can tell you he wants to get the vaccine. He wants his life back. These kids want to go back to school, they want to go back to the things they love," Walensky said.