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Kids who got placebo in clinical trials get real thing; new variant concerning

Dr. Sritha Rajupet inoculates Aadam Hameedi, 5, of

Dr. Sritha Rajupet inoculates Aadam Hameedi, 5, of Hicksville, with his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine Friday at Stony Brook Medicine's Advanced Specialty Care in Commack. Aadam and some other children had received the placebo during a vaccine trial for children under age 12. Credit: Danielle Silverman

As children got their second Pfizer shot Friday at Stony Brook Medicine, health experts were worriedly looking at rising COVID-19 caseloads in New York and nationwide, and at the emergence of a new variant detected in South Africa.

Several parents brought their children to Stony Brook's medical office in Commack on Friday to get them the vaccine shot they had hoped to get months ago — but didn’t. Their kids had participated in clinical trials to test the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine for children, but they received a placebo rather than the real thing.

What to know

Health experts say they're concerned about the emergence of a new COVID-19 variant first detected in South Africa, but that it's too soon to know whether vaccines will be less effective against it.

On Friday, some Long Island children who had received placebos during clinical trials for pediatric COVID-19 vaccines finally got their second dose of the real thing.

They are in a small minority of children 5 to 11 on Long Island who have gotten at least one vaccine dose. Only 11.6% had, according to state data, compared with more than 90% of adults.

As kids were getting shots, news about the emergence of a new variant was spreading.

Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children's Hospital, said, "it’s not surprising to see a new variant. It’s all related to how many people are infected and passing the virus from one to the other."

On Friday, an advisory panel of the World Health Organization classified the variant as a highly transmissible virus of concern.

It’s unclear, though, whether vaccines will be just as effective against the new variant — which WHO named "omicron" — as they have been against the highly contagious delta variant, Nachman said.

"The concern is going to be, ‘Does the antibody you get from vaccination also prevent this new virus from entering your cells and taking hold?’ " she said. "That is what our hope is. I think more information is needed. Right now, it’s a little premature to say how well the vaccine will perform."

Even if the current vaccine isn’t effective against the new variant, scientists would just need to tweak the current vaccines instead of creating new ones, she said.

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Friday cited the possible spread of the new variant to New York, and concerns of a winter spike in cases, when she announced a "state disaster emergency" that allows the state Department of Health to "limit nonessential, non-urgent procedures" in hospitals with limited capacity of staffed beds. The policy goes into effect Dec. 3.

'So cool to be part of history'

The children who were in Commack on Friday were among the one-third of more than 100 kids in the Stony Brook portion of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine research who had gotten a placebo. They only found that out after the trials concluded a few weeks ago.

Health experts are concerned by the low percentage of kids 5 to 11 who have been vaccinated since federal officials Nov. 2 gave final authorization for use of the Pfizer vaccine in that age group.

On Long Island, only 11.6% of children 5 to 11 have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to state data released Friday.

At the health center in Commack, Andraia Miller, of Smithtown, said she and her son Jonathan, 10, were "disappointed" when they found out he had received the placebo.

"You built up the relief that it was over and you’re protected and you’re safe, and we weren’t," said Miller, minutes after Jonathan got his second Pfizer shot.

Jonathan said he liked participating in the trial because "if I could help other people, less people would get sick."

Miller, a business analyst whose three other children — ages 15, 18 and 20 — already had been inoculated, said, "it’s so cool to be part of history."

"He’s going to talk to his grandkids about it," she said. "His brothers are going to talk to their grandkids about what Uncle Jon did to help."

Michael Fischer, a high school history teacher from Smithtown, said all four of his children, ages 5 to 9, were enrolled in the clinical trials.

"He was the only one who got the placebo," Fischer said Friday as he stood next to Tucker, 7, moments after Tucker got his second dose of the real thing.

Dr. Aisha Khan, of Hicksville, whose 5-year-old son Aadam Hameedi received his second shot Friday, said she told Aadam that even though he initially got the placebo, he is "a superhero" for participating in research that will help others.

"He’s very proud and tells everyone ‘I’m a superhero because I help the scientists with COVID vaccines for children,’ " she said.

As an infectious-disease doctor at three Sun River Health centers in Suffolk County, Khan was eager to have her child participate in the trial.

"I really wanted him to have a chance of getting the vaccine," she said.

When she found out he received the placebo, she wasn’t bothered "because we want to help scientists decide whether this vaccine is safe for kids or not."

Khan said parents have asked her and her husband, Fawad Hameedi, also a doctor, about whether to get their kids vaccinated. At Thanksgiving dinner, a friend who has 9- and 11-year-old girls said she wasn’t sure whether to get them inoculated. Khan said she explained how the vaccines work and how they're safe.

"Hopefully it calmed her fears about it," she said.

Khan said she understands that parents want to be cautious with their children.

But, she said, "Instead of being afraid of the side effects of the vaccine, I’d really think about the side effects of the actual COVID-19 virus ... We still don’t know the long-term effects."

LI numbers inch up again

Long Island's COVID-19 seven-day average of positivity rates inched up again Thursday, to 4.4%, up from 4.39% on Wednesday and 4.28% on Tuesday. There were 391 new cases in Nassau County and 413 in Suffolk.

Twenty-eight New Yorkers died Thursday from COVID-19, including two people in Nassau and 22 upstate, where vaccination rates are much lower.

Meanwhile, the Long Beach Emergency Department reopened on Friday at 7 a.m., said Damian Becker, a spokesman for Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside, which operates the barrier island's only stand-alone emergency room.

Mount Sinai on Monday closed the Long Beach department because of a shortage of nurses vaccinated against COVID-19. On Thursday, Hochul announced an agreement with the hospital to provide eight to 10 vaccinated nurses so the facility could reopen.

With Robert Brodsky and AP

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