With a new school year just around the corner, parents are thinking about more than back-to-school clothes and supplies for their kids this year. Memories of remote learning from the last school year are still fresh, so getting kids back to in-person learning in the safest possible environment is the priority. And this school year, COVID-19 can pose less of a threat for children 12 and older who can now get the Pfizer vaccine.
Clearly, the vaccine against COVID-19 has moved us in the right direction. While the Delta variant is responsible for an increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths across the U.S., outbreaks are most severely clustered among the unvaccinated. Louisiana has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, and pediatric COVID-19 cases are surging there, according to recent data from the American Association of Pediatrics.
Dr. Mark Kline, a physician at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, told NBC News, “Over the course of the first year of this pandemic, the myth existed that children never got very ill from Covid.” But the highly contagious Delta variant has raised alarm among pediatric doctors throughout the country.
“Over the course of the first year of this pandemic, the myth existed that children never got very ill from Covid.”
Dr. Mark Kline, physician at Children’s Hospital New Orleans
Teachers know best
Teachers are highly motivated to keep their students and themselves safe, and they have flocked to the vaccine in large numbers. A White House Briefing Room statement indicates that nearly 90% of educators and school staff are vaccinated. The two largest teacher unions in the U.S. – the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – have strongly supported vaccination, and AFT President Randi Weingarten recently said she supported requiring the vaccine “as a matter of personal conscience.” Weingarten summed up the logic behind getting vaccinated and returning to in-person learning this way: “There is still a race between the vaccine and the variants. … AFT members know the importance of in-school learning. They want to return, the road map to reopening is robust, and if we instill trust and meet fear with facts we can finally end this national nightmare.”
Lagging vaccination rates for children
More than 71% of adults in the U.S. have received at least one dose of the vaccine, but child rates are lower. As of August 10, 42.6% of 12 to 15 year olds had received at least one shot. Part of this could be due to when vaccines became available. Approval for vaccine use in children ages 12 to 15 was granted in mid-May, compared to December 2020 for those 16 and older. The rate for 16-17 year olds is higher, at 52.5% as of August 10.
But timing isn’t the only reason for the lagging rates. Parents want to keep their children safe, yet many have hesitated to get their kids vaccinated. What information and support are they lacking?
Hesitancy doesn’t always equal opposition
Even among parents who have had their children vaccinated with the recommended schedule of childhood immunizations, safety concerns top the list of reasons for their hesitancy about the COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Hina Talib, a physician in adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital in Montefiore, New York, told the New York Times that she’s received hundreds of messages from concerned parents, many of whom have had the COVID-19 vaccine. Questions focus on the research behind the vaccine, potential side effects and lingering health problems that could specifically impact children.
After taking the time to answer their specific concerns, Dr. Talib noted that most parents prefer to get their children vaccinated in a pediatrician’s office, rather than a large vaccination site or pharmacy. Having familiar health care professionals administer and monitor the shot provides additional peace of mind for parents. President Joe Biden’s vaccination strategy seems aligned with this perspective as it shifts away from mass vaccination sites in favor of supporting local “COVID-19 Community Corps” to disseminate safety information and where to get the shot.
What parents want to know
Has there been enough research into the vaccine?
This concern is shared by over half of parents surveyed by the Commonwealth Fund and the African American Research Collaborative. The national poll surveyed over 12,000 Americans.
Since the original clinical trials were concluded in late December 2020, over 350 million doses have gone into arms with very few adverse effects reported. More than 3,000 of the Pfizer vaccine trial participants were children between ages 12 to 17. The Pfizer vaccine is the only shot currently approved for children 12-17 years old.
Historically, adverse effects from vaccines typically show up within two months of vaccination, and the COVID-19 vaccine has a track record much longer than that. The mRNA technology behind the Pfizer vaccine has been under study for decades, going back to outbreaks of infectious diseases such as SARS, MERS, and Zika.
Some parents point to the Food and Drug Administration’s Emergency Use Authorization(EUA) designation of the COVID-19 vaccines as a reason to take a wait and see attitude. But the EUA status is less of a reason to distrust the vaccine than you might think. The process to qualify for EUA approval requires rigorous testing and evidence to prove effectiveness and safety. Full approval reflects that more follow-up data has been analyzed. But even without the years of follow-up study, the EUA is the very process that gives scientists the confidence to encourage vaccination right now to counter the known adverse health effects of the coronavirus.
What about side effects?
Children who have received the COVID-19 vaccine have experienced side effects that mirror the symptoms and duration reported by adults, most commonly soreness around the injection site, tiredness, fever, chills and muscle pain, typically lasting one to three days.
Reports of heart inflammation, primarily in males ages 16 and older have been rare, with 633 confirmed cases as of mid-July. A prompt improvement of symptoms occurred in most cases with medications and rest. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to recommend the vaccine, given the rarity of serious side effects and relatively greater risks associated with contracting COVID-19.
What about lasting health problems?
While years of follow-up studies will provide the data to track any lasting health effects of the COVID-19 vaccine, its ingredients are simple compounds of lipids (fats), salt and sugar that will do no immediate or down the road harm unless a sensitivity to these compounds is already of concern to individuals. The vaccine delivers the unique code of the coronavirus spike protein via tiny fat molecules called nanolipids, in effect providing the “recipe” the body uses to recognize and fight the virus. There is no live virus in an mRNA vaccine, and it stays in the body just long enough to trigger the antibody reaction. The vaccine then breaks down and is flushed out of the system. The vaccine does not enter the cell’s nucleus where DNA is stored, so there is no potential for DNA to be affected.
Questions about the vaccine’s impact on fertility and pregnancy have been especially concerning to parents. Social media has created an environment where far-fetched theories get equal time (or perhaps more time) than credible, fact-based information. And they have staying power. Even after the European Medicines Agency, an organization similar to the U.S. FDA, and medical professionals around the world rejected a claim that the vaccine might impact fertility, the topic has lingered.
A German doctor who has been skeptical of vaccines set off the frenzy when he pointed out that a protein in the vaccine is similar to one found in the placenta in mammals. But the similarity is so small that no credible scientific theories support the idea that it could have an impact on fertility. Furthermore this theoretical risk was disproven in the clinical trials when 23 participants became pregnant with no reported adverse effects. The CDC’s V-Safe pregnancy registry has monitored the pregnancies of 3,958 vaccinated women, finding that their pregnancies had comparable outcomes to those before the pandemic.
Medical professionals have worked mightily to counter the misinformation, reassuring patients in terms they can understand. “A good analogy I’ve heard is that for your immune system to get mixed up and attack the placental protein would be like you mistaking an elephant for an alley cat because they’re both gray,” Dr. Laura Morris, a family medicine doctor with the University of Missouri Health Care System, said on the health care system’s website.
A string of other myths and lies about everything from menstruation, miscarriages and breastfeeding continue to surface on social media. Platforms such as Facebook and Google are increasingly removing and/or correcting false information, but it’s still wise to apply a critical lens when evaluating information found on the internet.
COVID-19 is the known danger
Among all age groups, getting sick with COVID-19 carries much higher health risks than getting the vaccine. Over 14 percent of all COVID-19 cases have occurred in children, and the recent surge could move this higher. Increasingly, long-haul effects— including extreme fatigue, rapid heart rate, and brain fog — are showing up in many of the over 4 million children who’ve had the misfortune of getting the virus.
Providing parents with thoughtful and respectful answers to their questions about the COVID-19 vaccine can tip the scales so that this coming school year will be safer and healthier for everyone.