COVID-19 remains a major health worry as many children return to in-person classrooms this fall. While the vaccine is available and recommended for kids over the age of 12, it’s not yet been approved for those who are younger. For parents trying to make the best decisions to protect their young ones, this can raise questions and concerns. Jill Foster, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with University of Minnesota Physicians (M Physicians), demystifies some of the concerns parents might have. 

“So far, COVID-19 vaccines in children under 12 years of age have only been administered in clinical trials, and the numbers are too small to draw any conclusions about long-term effects,” Dr. Foster said. “Certainly, though, nothing concerning.”

With vaccines, Dr. Foster refers to short-term effects as happening within a few days and long-term effects as happening later after administration. In those older than 12 who have been vaccinated, there have been rare instances of inflammation of the heart – myocarditis (muscle) or perimyocarditis (muscle and the fibrous sac surrounding the heart). This incredibly rare condition happens in about 1,000 out of 177 million vaccinations, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and all the cases have been mild and the individuals recovered quickly. 

“You’re six times more likely to have myocarditis as a result of COVID-19 infection than from getting the vaccine,” Dr. Foster said, putting it into perspective. 

While researchers are still collecting data on the COVID-19 vaccine, over the last century vaccines administered to infants, teens and adults haven’t been linked to serious short or long-term side effects.

“There are plenty of websites offering opinions, but none have borne out to be anything more than coincidence,” Dr. Foster said. “This includes the disproven link between the MMR vaccine and a number of things, including autism.”

Dr. Foster compares these false links to trying to call someone while only knowing one digit of their phone number – false correlations don’t take the full picture into account. Some parents might also wonder why the vaccine is taking longer to be approved for children than adults.

“Vaccines are tested in adults first and then children, so we’re still playing catch up,” Dr. Foster said. “There is always more caution testing vaccines and medication in children. We want to make sure we get the dose right – such as measuring if a smaller amount is needed – and we spend additional time monitoring for any side effects.”

For kids under the age of 12 who can’t yet be vaccinated, extra caution is advised. Dr. Foster recommends that children wear a well-fitted mask around others and don’t wear the same mask for more than a day. Disposable masks should be thrown out after a single use and cloth masks should be washed between uses. 

“Continually reinforce the need for hand washing and physical distancing, even though it seems like it’s getting old now,” Dr. Foster said. “Avoid crowded indoor spaces, especially if there isn’t good ventilation.”