Why are vaccines still important if so many kids have already had COVID-19?

FILE IMAGE - A nurse administers a pediatric dose of the Covid-19 vaccine to a girl at a L.A. Care Health Plan vaccination clinic at Los Angeles Mission College in the Sylmar neighborhood in Los Angeles, California, on Jan. 19, 2022. (Photo by ROBYN

With a new report estimating that 75% of U.S. children have likely had COVID-19, in addition to Moderna seeking to be the first to offer its shot for those under age 6, vaccines for America’s young population have likely been top of mind for many parents. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report shared this week estimated that three out of every four U.S. children have already been infected, based on a study of blood samples from more than 200,000 Americans. 

Meanwhile, White House medical adviser and infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci also indicated in a recent interview that the U.S. is moving "out of the pandemic phase," noting a decline in reported hospitalizations and deaths.

Considering all of this, why are vaccines still important for kids who have already been infected?

Here’s what experts say:

Why should children be vaccinated against COVID-19?

The CDC and other public health experts overwhelmingly say that ongoing safety monitoring shows that COVID-19 vaccination continues to be safe for children and that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the known and potential risks. It also helps to reduce the virus’ chance of mutating into new, more worrisome variants.

And while COVID-19 generally isn’t as dangerous in youngsters as adults, some do become severely ill or even die. About 475 children younger than 5 have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic’s start, according to the CDC. Children can also have complications such as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) that may require intensive care or long-lasting symptoms.

"As we all know and have heard before, the COVID vaccine was developed to reduce severe infection and reduce hospitalization and death — and it is still doing that," said Melissa Marx, an assistant professor and epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. 

"Vaccines have absolutely changed childhood survival in this country and around the world, and the COVID vaccine is no exception. There is, in my mind, no reason not to get a potentially life-saving, preventative vaccine," Marx added.

The CDC also states that there is no way to tell in advance how children will be affected by COVID-19, noting how healthy kids without underlying medical conditions can sometimes experience severe illness. 

It echoes that the vaccine offers strong protection against severe disease and hospitalization and can help keep kids safely in childcare and school, as well as participating in sports and other extracurricular activities.

But what if my child already had COVID-19? Do they still need the vaccine?

Eligible children should get a COVID-19 vaccine or booster, even if they already had COVID-19, CDC and other public health experts stress. 

Studies have shown that previous infection can protect some people against severe disease and hospitalization, but much remains unclear — including how much protection and for how long once they recover. 

Other research has suggested that people who already had COVID-19 and did not get vaccinated after their recovery are more likely to get COVID-19 again than those who did get the vaccine after recovering.

Scientists are still trying to understand what role these kinds of antibodies play in protection from future virus exposures.

Currently, children ages 5 or older are eligible for vaccination in the U.S. Kids 12 and older are also eligible to get a booster shot.

When will a COVID vaccine be available for kids under 6?

Meanwhile, many frustrated families have been waiting for a chance to protect the nation’s youngest kids as masks are shed and other public health precautions continue to ease. Vaccines for babies, toddlers and preschoolers — some 18 million children — have been delayed in part due to challenges in finding the correct dose that will be safe yet effective, Marx noted.

Shots for children in this age group, as young as 6 months old, are just one-tenth the size of the adult doses. That’s even smaller than the doses given for 5- to 11-year-olds, which are one-third the dose. 

Moderna said this week that it hopes to be the first to offer a COVID-19 vaccine for the youngest American children, announcing that it submitted data to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to clear low-dose shots for little ones.

Similarly, its rival Pfizer is soon expected to announce if three of its even smaller-dose shots work for the youngest kids, months after the disappointing discovery that two doses weren’t quite strong enough.

Whether it’s one company’s shots or both, FDA vaccine chief Dr. Peter Marks said the agency will "move quickly without sacrificing our standards" in deciding if tot-sized doses are safe and effective.

While questions have swirled about what has taken so long, the FDA chief pointedly told lawmakers earlier this week that the agency can't evaluate a product until a manufacturer completes its application. 

In a statement Thursday, the FDA said it will schedule a meeting to publicly debate Moderna's evidence with its independent scientific advisers but that the company still must submit some additional data. Moderna expects to do so the first week of May.

"It’s critically important that we have the proper evaluation so that parents will have trust in any vaccines that we authorize," Marks told a Senate committee.

If FDA clears vaccinations for the littlest, next the CDC would have to recommend who needs them — all tots or just those at higher risk from COVID-19 — which could potentially open the shots by summer.

This story was reported from Cincinnati. This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.