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After public hearing, Health Ministry to rule next week on vaccine for ages 5-11

Health officials hold open discussion to boost transparency, alleviate parents’ fears; Israel expected to follow FDA lead and approve vaccinating the age group

Illustrative: Aiden Arthurs receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine at the Jewish Federation/JARC's offices in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, May 13, 2021. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)
Illustrative: Aiden Arthurs receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine at the Jewish Federation/JARC's offices in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, May 13, 2021. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)

Aiming to push back at accusations of opaque decision-making, the Health Ministry allowed the public to listen in for five hours as it debated approval of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children between the ages of 5 and 11, though a final decision will only be announced next week.

The hearing was live-streamed to boost transparency efforts, with some pre-approved members of the public allowed to weigh in with questions in real-time. The discussion came days after the US Food and Drug Administration granted the vaccine authorization for the age group, paving the way for the US to begin immunizing younger kids.

The Health Ministry is widely expected to follow the FDA’s lead and approve the vaccine for children ages 5-11. But the ministry is going through every step necessary in the most transparent way possible to ease fears among many parents and convince them to bring their children to get the shot.

A final decision on the matter is expected early next week, said Dr. Boaz Lev, the Health Ministry’s ombudsman who opened the hearing. Lev said the decision on whether to also make the final hearing public will be made in the coming days.

Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, some health officials had expressed qualms over the open nature of the meeting, fearing they would feel restricted in what they could say, but the ministry pushed ahead as a means of combating misinformation surrounding the vaccine.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the ministry’s head of public health, said during the hearing that the most recent wave of the pandemic affected young people who were not vaccinated at a higher proportion than previous rounds. She said that 136 children suffered from pediatric inflammatory multi-system syndrome (PIMS).

Also, according to the data presented by Alroy-Preis, inoculated children between the ages of 12 and 15 are a dozen times more protected against contracting the virus and 20 times more protected against symptomatic infection than those at their ages who have not been vaccinated.

Health Ministry expert Michal Stein noted that 393 children have been hospitalized in critical condition and that 11 of those patients succumbed to the disease.

Liat Ashkenazi-Hoffnung, who runs a clinic for long-term COVID-19 symptoms, said that 30 percent of the children treated there for so-called long-COVID were between the ages of 5 and 11.

Health officials also presented data from the 163 children between the ages of 5 and 11 who were granted special permission to receive the vaccination under close monitoring.

Four of the children contracted COVID a week after being vaccinated, while one of them contracted the virus three weeks later. Only four of the children experienced minor side effects such as body weakness and pain at the area of the shot. One child suffered a seizure eight days after receiving the second dose, but it did not cause any neurological damage.

Alroy-Preis told viewers that the Health Ministry would not be forcing anyone to vaccinate their children.

“What is important is that every parent will make the decision for their child, relying on the statistics that we provide,” said Alroy-Preis. “As we have said all along, there is no attempt to force or to compel — rather to provide all of the data so that every parent can make the right decision for their child.”

Discussing the firm’s vaccine trial, a Pfizer representative addressing the hearing said the company was also considering spacing out the two doses for a longer period than the current three weeks between the first and second shots.

The Pfizer representative also told the health officials that the firm’s data found no cases of the heart condition myocarditis among children aged 5-11 who received the vaccine in their trial.

RN Rosemary Lantigua inoculates Ryann Onofrio Franceschini, 11, with the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children five to 12 years at The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, on November 3, 2021, in the Bronx borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

The discussion was divided into three sections — a presentation of medical information regarding the vaccines being proposed for younger children, a presentation of various medical opinions regarding vaccinating children and a Q&A session in which Health Ministry experts responded to queries on the matter from members of the public.

During the section of the hearing in which outside experts commented on the plan to vaccinate younger children, opinions were split largely down the middle, with some arguing that vaccines aren’t necessary at this stage, while others maintained that it could protect against the spread in the broader population.

Ahead of the hearing, the Israel Pediatricians Association issued a position paper in support of vaccinating those between the ages of 5 and 11, saying that children will be exposed to the coronavirus “sooner or later” and the question for health experts to consider was whether they wanted young people to at least be immunized from the virus before they contract it.

Health Ministry officials have said that Israel could start distributing vaccines for children aged 5 to 11 starting mid-November, which is when a shipment of Pfizer’s kid-sized doses is reportedly expected to arrive.

In Israel, full-strength Pfizer shots are already recommended for anyone 12 or older, but pediatricians and many parents are anxiously awaiting protection for younger children to stem infections from the extra-contagious Delta variant and to help keep kids out of quarantine and in school.

The shots for children under 12 are expected to be one-third the dosage for adults.

Israel appears to be at the tail end of its fourth coronavirus wave, as new infections and serious cases have ticked down over the past few weeks. Over 600 new cases were recorded Wednesday, down from thousands of new daily cases just a few months ago.

On Thursday, the number of active cases fell to 6,802, and the number of patients hospitalized in serious condition was at 180. There have been 8,112 virus deaths in Israel since the start of the pandemic.

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