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Children, ages 5 to 11, are now eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19, marking a major event to protect young populations from the deadly pandemic.

U.S. health officials, including a panel of independent experts and the director of the Centers for Disease Control, voted Tuesday to approve the Pfizer vaccine for children. It was not previously offered to this age group.

Children’s doses of the Pfizer vaccine consists of one-third of the dose adults receive.

Full inoculation requires two injections, three weeks apart.

The news has important implications for Native communities, Tlingit expert Dr. Mary J. Owen told Indian Country Today on Tuesday.

“Kids are going to school, and over and over, no matter how well we try to protect them, they're still getting infected there, and then they're bringing that infection back home.”

Owen, Tlingit, is the president of the Association of American Indian Physicians and executive director of the Center of American Indian and Minority Health at the University of Minnesota.

She urged children to be vaccinated to protect all generations.

“We are still losing critical members, such as elders, children, and other people who haven't been vaccinated in our communities. So get it done now. It's safe.”

The vaccine was found to be 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 in children 5 to 11, according to data by the CDC in clinical trials. The study included approximately 3,000 children.

If you were speaking to the families of Native children specifically, would you urge them to get their kids vaccinated? What would you say to them?

Dr. Mary Owen: “I would definitely urge them to get their kids vaccinated. We are still seeing significant death and illness in our community and it is because not enough people are vaccinated. We haven't been able to, until now, get our kids vaccinated, but this is the final piece that we need to keep our community safe.”

Owen said the research behind the children’s vaccine is “extremely safe.”

“People don't realize just how much has gone into preparations and the work to get these vaccinations out to every single community, of every single age, and for our children whom we worry about the most, of course, the testing has been much more stringent,” Owen said.

Data shows COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted Native communities and is more deadly for American Indians and Alaska Natives than other races and ethnicities.

“It's one of the areas of our highest health disparities. And in fact, we died at four times the non-Native rate for H1N1, and we're seeing similar effects, three times the rates, of other populations from COVID-19.”

(Related: #YDL: Data empowers stories, changes health care systems)

The CDC’s Director Rochelle Walensky said while the risk of severe disease and death is lower in young children than adults, it is real. She added that COVID-19 has had a “profound” social, mental health and educational impact on youngsters, including widening disparities in learning.

“There are children in the second grade who have never experienced a normal school year,” Walensky said. “Pediatric vaccination has the power to help us change all of that.”

The process to get emergency use authorization of the vaccine required a green light from both the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC. Both agencies had special panels of independent experts who evaluated the data from clinical trials.

FILE - In this Feb. 19, 2021, file photo, Grace John, who works at a school in San Lorenzo, gets a COVID-19 shot at a mobile vaccination clinic run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state in Hayward, Calif. California will become the first state in the nation to require all teachers and school staff to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. The statewide vaccine mandate for K-12 educators comes as schools return from summer break amid growing concerns of the highly contagious delta variant. (AP Photo/Terry Chea, File)

The American Academy of Pediatrics welcomed the decision as its members get ready to start the first injections into little arms, which began Wednesday.

Over the weekend, drugmaker Pfizer began shipping millions of the pediatric shots to states, doctors’ offices and pharmacies. This move allowed many communities to prepare for the inoculations ahead of time.

In the U.S., there have been more than 8,300 coronavirus-related hospitalizations of kids ages 5 to 11, about a third requiring intensive care, according to government data. The CDC has recorded at least 94 deaths in that age group, with additional reports under investigation.

And while the U.S. has seen a recent downturn in COVID-19 cases, experts are worried about another uptick with holiday travel and as winter sends more activity indoors where it’s easier for the coronavirus to spread.

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11/4 correction: The COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer is approved for 5- to 11-year-old kids.

ICT’s Aliyah Chavez and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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