Dr. Fauci told lawmakers during a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee last week that young children and teenagers are a key demographic to reaching the vaccination threshold at which the larger population receives some protection from COVID-19 infection. “We don’t really know what that magical point of herd immunity is, but we do know that if we get the overwhelming population vaccinated, we’re going to be in good shape,” Dr. Fauci said, as CNN reports. “We ultimately would like to get, and have to get, children into that mix.”
Herd immunity, as SELF explained previously, refers to the protective effect achieved when enough people in a given population are protected from a pathogen (typically via vaccination, as opposed to natural infection) that the entire community gets some protection as well, including those who can’t or don’t want to get vaccinated. The ratio of people that is “enough” to get herd immunity depends on how infectious the particular pathogen is. And as Dr. Fauci said, we aren’t sure of the exact percentage required in the case of COVID-19.
Previously, Dr. Fauci estimated that we need 75% to 85% of the population to get vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. But 22.3% of the population is under the age of 18, according to the latest data from the U.S Census Bureau. That means it will be impossible to hit Dr. Fauci’s target without them—especially considering not all adults can get vaccinated and others are not willing to. It’s also important to note here that this estimate is based on the assumption that the vaccines help prevent the transmission of the virus in addition to the symptoms of infection, SELF explained previously. A growing body of evidence suggests vaccinated people are indeed less likely to transmit the infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but this is not certain.
Currently only the Pfizer vaccine is available for anyone under 18; it’s been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for use in people as young as 16. The vaccines from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are only authorized for people 18 and older. Europe has approved the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has not yet been authorized in the U.S., for use in people 18 and older.
Last week Moderna began testing the safety and effectiveness of its vaccine in infants and children from six months to 12 years old, Reuters reports, following a study on children aged 12 to 18 started in December. Pfizer is testing its vaccine in children as young as 12, The New York Times reports, and Johnson & Johnson announced it will soon test its vaccine in children aged 12 to 18. Although we are still waiting on the data from those ongoing studies, Dr. Fauci projects that high school students will be able to start getting vaccinated in the fall of 2021, and children 12 and younger may be able to get their shots starting in the first quarter of 2022, CNBC reports.
Getting children vaccinated is key for reaching herd immunity and protecting them from the virus. It will also help the country make a return to in-person learning as safe as possible for kids, educators, and caregivers alike. Although fewer kids than adults have gotten COVID-19, children can still become sick and spread the virus (even if they don’t have noticeable symptoms), the CDC explains. And some children, including those under one year old or with certain underlying conditions, are at risk for severe illness. Getting as much of this younger population vaccinated as possible is crucial for protecting them—and the rest of the country.
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