In-Depth: Will expanding vaccine eligibility to kids 5-11 years old end the pandemic?

FDA & CDC considering approval
Posted at 5:57 AM, Oct 28, 2021

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - With a 17-0 vote Tuesday, the FDA's Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBAC) recommended the COVID-19 vaccine for kids ages 5-11.

That means around 321,000 children in San Diego are one step closer to being eligible for the vaccine.

And while most of the debate around the vote focused on the individual safety of children and the risks and benefits for each kid who gets the shot, experts say there's another benefit to expanding eligibility: ending the pandemic.

"I think it will get us a lot closer," says Dr. Mark Sawyer, an Infectious Disease Specialist at Rady Children's Hospital. Dr. Sawyer is also a member of VRBAC, and he voted for approval.

"There are lots of things that are hard to predict, but I do think that by getting this extra part of our population immunized, we're unlikely to see the big peaks in disease that we've seen in the last year," he says.

New numbers from the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub back up his claims.

The Hub is a collective of 13 different universities and medical research institutions. Each of them runs scenarios to try and predict how the pandemic will unfold. The Hub then creates an "ensemble" prediction where the models agree.

Their latest round of projections analyzed what would most likely happen if the vaccine gained approval for kids ages 5-11 and what would happen if it were not approved.

According to their latest models, the U.S. would reach 51,707,302 total cases by March of 2022 if the vaccine is not approved for kids. If it is, their numbers show the US would have 51,302,076 cases, a drop of 405,226 total cases.

When it comes to hospitalizations, the U.S. could reach 941,244 without approval for kids. If it is approved, that number drops to 837,696, a difference of 103,548.

Meanwhile, the projections show the U.S. death toll from COVID could reach 794,994 without approval, or 780,047 with; a difference of 14,947.

USC Assistant Research Professor Dr. Ajitesh Srivastava is part of the Modeling Hub. He says those numbers are significant. But they come with a sense of uncertainty.

"These are not exact numbers," Dr. Srivastava says. "There's a lot of uncertainty around it. So you should take that into consideration."

Still, he says compiling all of the data from so many different researchers can give a reasonable estimate of the results, and that's important to help people make decisions.

"In this kind of situation, where there is inherent uncertainty, it has been observed that when you actually ask multiple experts instead of relying on one expert, you get more reliable answers," he says.

The Hub's numbers show vaccinating children won't end the pandemic in one fell swoop. But Dr. Sawyer believes it will get us closer to herd immunity, which is the next best thing.

"We don't have to get everybody immunized," Dr. Sawyer says. "We just have to get most people immunized, and the transmission will stop."

But he and Dr. Srivastava caution that other variables could prolong the pandemic. The emergence of another variant could be a factor. So could decisions to end pandemic precautions like wearing masks and social distancing.

"The modeling is only as good as the assumptions you put into it," says Dr. Sawyer. "We have to wait and get real data to see how this works."

In the meantime, the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub researchers will keep working on new projections, looking for answers to the next set of COVID questions that arise.

"There's no prize at the end," says Dr. Srivastava. "We have the expertise, and we're trying our best to contribute to public health."