Uninsured kids will still receive Covid vaccines for free after shots move to commercial market

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A child is administered a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pediatric vaccine.

Mayela Lopez | Reuters

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took a major step Wednesday toward ensuring that kids who are uninsured can receive Covid-19 vaccines for free after the federal government shifts its immunization program to the commercial market.

The CDC’s independent advisors voted unanimously on Wednesday to include Covid shots authorized for kids by the Food and Drug Administration in the federal government’s Vaccines For Children program.

The Vaccines for Children program provides vaccines to kids under age 19 whose families cannot afford them. Children are eligible for the program if they qualify for Medicaid or are uninsured, underinsured or Native American.

Including Covid shots in the program does not make them a routine childhood vaccination for school, said Dr. Jose Romero, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

The U.S. government has been providing Covid vaccines to everyone in the U.S. for free during the pandemic. But the Biden administration is working on a plan to transition the vaccination program to the commercial market as soon as 2023, which means people will have to start paying for the shots.

Dr. Jeanne Santoli, a CDC official, said the public health agency will start awarding contracts for healthcare providers to give the Covid shots for free to uninsured kids.

Currently, children as young as six months old are eligible for Pfizer’s and Moderna’s two-dose primary series with the first-generation shots that target the original Covid strain. Kids as young as age 5 are eligible for the new booster shots that target the dominant omicron BA.5 subvariant.

The decision to include Covid shots in the free vaccine program will prove crucial to maintaining access for many children. As many as 5.3 million kids are expected to lose health insurance through Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program whenever the Biden administration decides to end the Covid public health emergency, according to the Health and Human Services Department.

“This is an access issue. This is an issue to allow children that don’t have insurance to gain access to this vaccine,” said Romero.

Although Covid is generally less severe in kids than adults, more than 162,000 children under age 18 have been hospitalized with Covid since August 2020, according to data from the CDC. More than 1,800 children have died from Covid since the pandemic began, according to the data.

Public health officials are also worried about kids developing long Covid even after a mild infection.

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