The COVID-19 vaccine has been recommended for kids for years, but uptake has been lower in children than adults — especially with the updated vaccine that was released last year. Now, a new study breaks down how effective the 2022 vaccine has been in children, and doctors say the results are worth keeping in mind as we head into a new cold, flu, RSV and COVID season.
So what does the data show? Here's what you need to know.
What the study says
The study, which was published in JAMA Network, found that the updated 2022 COVID-19 vaccine was linked with a lowered risk of COVID-19 ER, urgent care and outpatient visits in kids under the age of five.
What are the key findings?
For the study, researchers analyzed data from 24,261 children between the ages of 6 months and 4 years at Kaiser Permanente Southern California who were diagnosed with an acute respiratory infection and tested for COVID-19 between July 23, 2022, through May 19, 2023. Of those, 2,337 (or 10%) had COVID-19 and just 1,457 (or 6%) were vaccinated against the virus. The researchers found that just 3.3% of the 2,337 children who tested positive and 6.3% of the 21,924 controls were vaccinated with two or three doses of the 2022 vaccine.
The researchers also discovered that children who received two or three doses of the updated COVID-19 vaccine were 70% less likely to wind up in the ER or urgent care due to COVID and 60% less likely to see their doctor compared to unvaccinated kids.
This isn’t the first study to find that COVID vaccines are effective in children. Another recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that children aged five and younger who received the original COVID-19 vaccine and the updated vaccine were protected against the need for medical care for COVID in an emergency department or urgent care facility. That study also determined that one or more doses of the bivalent vaccine was 80% effective in keeping kids out of the hospital or urgent care.
"All children should stay up to date with recommended COVID-19 vaccines, including initiation of COVID-19 vaccination immediately when they are eligible," the researchers concluded.
What experts think
Experts say the findings aren't surprising. "A number of studies including those at our own institution show that vaccination even with earlier mismatched strains can afford some protection from later circulating strains," Dr. Mark Hicar, an associate professor of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life.
But the findings offer "really important information," Dr. Ian Michelow, division head of pediatric infectious diseases and immunology at Connecticut Children's Specialty Group, tells Yahoo Life. "This tells us that, for children who get the updated vaccine, it's very effective at keeping them out of emergency departments. Families need to know this information."
The latest data "reinforces the notion that, at every age, the benefits of vaccination outweigh any very small concerns regarding potential side effects," infectious disease expert Dr. William Schaffner, a professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. "It's very important to note that the vaccine really does work," he adds. "It helps keep children out of the emergency room and from being hospitalized."
Why it matters
Schaffner stresses that parents should pay attention to the findings and do what they can to protect their children. "COVID itself is continuing to cause damage — it's one of the 10 leading causes of death in children," he says. "There is a notion that children who are frail with underlying illnesses are the only ones getting really sick with COVID, and that's not correct."
Michelow notes that, while COVID-19 infections are usually not as severe in children as they are in older adults, the virus can still can cause complications — including long COVID, which can happen even after mild infections.
Hicar says he's hopeful the latest data will encourage parents to get their children vaccinated against COVID-19. "Vaccination uptake for children has generally been low," he says. "Almost all of the children who were admitted early in Omicron in our own hospital were under-vaccinated or not vaccinated at all."
Schaffner says that parents "have understandably heard what's true — that children are at less risk than their grandparents of getting seriously ill, and these Omicron strains are less likely to cause serious disease than the original strains."
"But you can walk and chew gum at the same time," Schaffner continues. "COVID has not disappeared, and these Omicron strains continue to be able to take normal, healthy children and put them in the pediatric ICU. That's why the CDC now urges everyone 6 months and older to get the new vaccine."