President Biden on Tuesday marked what White House officials have cast as the unofficial beginning of the U.S. vaccination campaign for children younger than 5, visiting a site in Washington, D.C., to meet with families and children as some shots were administered.
“Finally, some peace of mind,” Mr. Biden said at the White House after the event in remarks celebrating the availability of shots, calling it a “monumental step forward” in the nation’s pandemic response.
Federal health officials, eager to showcase the progress the United States has made in fending off deadly cases of the coronavirus, have worked for weeks to prepare parents and doctors for immunizing the youngest children, a population of around 20 million that has waited 18 months after adults first became eligible for the shots.
The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late last week cleared the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech shots for young children following votes from independent expert committees.
Mr. Biden said that he met with around 17 families at the Washington vaccination site with children who had already received a shot or were about to. A federal website, vaccines.gov, had updated on Tuesday to show locations where vaccines could be found, he said.
Arsema Desta, a registered nurse in Washington helping with local pediatric vaccination efforts, appeared with the president at the White House and said that shots for young children were important “because it allows multigenerational households to ensure everyone in the household is vaccinated.”
The Biden administration has already made at least 10 million doses available to states and health providers and expects to lean heavily on pediatricians and primary care offices to administer them, as is typical in pediatric vaccination campaigns. Pharmacies and community health centers, among other providers, will also vaccinate the youngest children.
But as of a deadline last week, only 2.5 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine had been ordered, around half of what the federal government offered, as well as about 1.3 million Moderna doses, about a quarter of what was offered.
Dr. Deborah M. Greenhouse, a pediatrician in Columbia, S.C., said that as of Tuesday afternoon, her practice had still been waiting on about 1,000 doses to arrive. She said parents she had encountered so far fell into three categories: those knocking down the doors to get the vaccine; those interested but needing some consultation; and families completely resistant.
She said that lower uptake among 5- to 11-year-olds was a “real concern” she and colleagues had, but were hoping to overcome with younger children. Only around 37 percent of kids in the age group have received at least one dose.
Pediatricians are especially important for families in making the choice, she said.
“Once it’s rolling out and you have a lot of the early adopter groups, once their kids have gotten the vaccine and there’s more data and bigger numbers, that’s what’s going to attract” families waiting to decide, she said.
Speaking at the White House Tuesday, Mr. Biden again warned of a lack of funding for the federal pandemic response, something he suggested could hinder future attempts to quash possible surges. Federal health officials have pleaded for months with lawmakers to provide more money for vaccines and treatments. But negotiations have stalled, even turning publicly hostile at a Senate hearing last week.
Mr. Biden also appeared to take a swipe at Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Health providers in the state were allowed to belatedly order shots for young children last week after Florida became the only state to decline preordering, White House officials have said. State officials denied that they had reversed their position and said that they had maintained a policy to allow orders after F.D.A. authorization.
“Let’s be clear: Elected officials shouldn’t get in the way and make it more difficult for parents who want their children to be vaccinated and want to protect them and those around them,” Mr. Biden said. “This is no time for politics. It’s about parents being able to do everything they can to keep their children safe.”
Health workers across the United States began to give Covid-19 vaccinations to children 6 months to 5 years old on Tuesday, another milestone in the coronavirus pandemic that came 18 long months after adults first began to receive injections against the virus.
But the response from parents was notably muted, with little indication of the excitement and long lines that greeted earlier vaccine rollouts.
An April poll showed that less than a fifth of parents of children under 5 were eager to get access to the shot right away. Early adopters in this age group appeared to be outliers.
At 9 a.m., Dayton Children’s Hospital in Ohio became one of the first sites to vaccinate the youngest children, with the three-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine meant for this age group. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also endorsed a second option for young children, a two-dose regimen from Moderna.
Brian Wentzel, 38, brought his 2-year-old son, Bodhi, at 9:15 a.m. The boy clutched a stuffed dog and bravely took the shot in his leg. His mother is a physician at the hospital.
“It was important to get him vaccinated,” Mr. Wentzel said. “It is extremely effective at preventing severe illness.”
At a White House news conference on Tuesday afternoon, President Biden called the expanded vaccines “a monumental step forward.”
“The United States,” he continued, “is now the first country in the world to offer safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines for children as young as 6 months old.”
He encouraged all Americans to get vaccinated and said parents should speak to a family doctor if they had questions. In additional to doctors’ offices, hospitals and clinics, the pharmacy chains CVS, Walgreens and Walmart would soon offer vaccines to the youngest children, Mr. Biden said.