Doctors are urging Florida parents to get the COVID-19 vaccine for their babies, toddlers and preschoolers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month recommended child-sized Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots for young children, from babies as young as 6 months to 4-year-old preschoolers. It’s the last age group to become eligible in the United States.
“For some young children, especially those with underlying illnesses, this is going to be life-changing,” said Christina Canody, medical director of pediatric services at BayCare Health System.
But many families across the country are wary of the shots — or uninterested in them. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in April found that two in five parents said they plan to wait and see how well the vaccines work for others before vaccinating their own young children. And 27% said they will “definitely not” get their kids vaccinated.
Only about a quarter of Florida children ages 5 to 11 have received the COVID-19 vaccine since Pfizer’s shots became available to them late last year, according to state data. Nationally, just 36% of this age group has been vaccinated.
Experts acknowledge that a significant share of parents are hesitant about the latest vaccine rollout, too.
“We can’t (go) in there, slamming our fist on the table, saying, ‘No, no, no, this vaccine is what your child needs. You got to do it,’” said Frank Esper, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s in Ohio.
“The best thing we can do is take time, develop that relationship with the family and say, ‘Listen, let me tell you what I’ve been reading. Let me tell you what I’ve been studying.’ ... We’ve seen plenty of sick kids in the hospital from this virus, saying, ‘This is not just some minor cold.’”
Here’s what parents should know about the shots and why they should vaccinate their children this summer, according to doctors.
Children can suffer severe complications
Most children have been fortunate so far when it comes to COVID-19 infection, said Allison Messina, chief of the division of infectious disease at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.
“Children have done much better than adults, in terms of it causing critical illness,” she said. “That’s undeniable.”
Florida’s youngest have the lowest death rate of any age group in the state, according to Department of Health data.
But young kids have still suffered serious virus complications. More than 30,000 U.S. children ages 4 and younger have been hospitalized with the virus during the pandemic, said U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
During the 2-year, 3-month pandemic, 27 children ages 4 and under have died from COVID-19 in Florida, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics.
Kids infected by COVID-19 also face the risk of developing inflammation in the heart, lungs and other organs, a severe but rare illness called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C.
Being vaccinated, Esper said, is a “good idea for children to protect themselves from getting really, really sick.” To that end, U.S. health officials vetted and authorized two vaccines for young children:
Moderna’s two-dose vaccine is for children 6 months to age 5. The Food and Drug Administration said it expects it to be effective at preventing severe illness and hospitalization. The agency said Pfizer’s three-dose vaccine for children and infants 6 months to age 4 will also likely help against serious disease and death.
Infants and young toddlers, Esper noted, are particularly vulnerable to the virus. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend that kids under age 2 wear masks. That’s because babies have smaller airways and it’s harder for them to breathe through face coverings.
Mitigating disruptions to life
Doctors don’t expect the vaccines to completely prevent infections in kids, especially as contagious omicron subvariants race through the population.
The shots, though, still offer some protection against mild illness. That means working parents can worry less about their children in daycare or preschool getting infected and being forced to stay home.
Esper said the virus recently spread through his family, but did not infect his 3-year-old son. The boy, however, was exposed to COVID-19, Esper said, so he could not go to daycare.
Vaccinated children who show no symptoms don’t have to quarantine for five days when exposed to COVID-19, according to CDC guidelines. Unvaccinated kids do. Esper said that could sway parents to get their children vaccinated:
“We are like, ‘Listen, hey, we’re going to (get him vaccinated) just because we can’t be out of work.”
Preparing for pre-K and preschool
Vaccinating kids in the coming weeks will help prepare them for prekindergarten and preschool in the fall, Esper said.
Moderna’s two doses are given four weeks apart. After the second dose, it takes two weeks for vaccine immunity to take full effect. That gives parents time this summer to get their kids vaccinated before school begins.
But Pfizer’s three-dose series administers the second dose three weeks after the first, and the third eight weeks after the second. Parents who choose Pfizer should do so right away, because it will take 13 weeks total to become fully vaccinated.
“I think most people, myself included, expect that there’s going to be another substantial wave of COVID infection in the fall,” Esper said. “We certainly want everybody to be ready for the start of school.”
‘The benefits outweigh the risks’
Pfizer says preliminary analysis of its vaccine shows it’s 80% effective against symptomatic illness. The Moderna vaccine is about 51% effective in children between 6 months and 2 years old; it’s roughly 37% effective in kids 2 to 5 years old.
There were no vaccine-related cases of anaphylaxis, no deaths and no confirmed reports of myocarditis during the clinical trials for young children, according to the FDA. Anaphylaxis is a serious allergic reaction. Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart muscle that has been linked to rare cases in adults and adolescents who received the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
The most common adverse reactions in Pfizer’s trial for kids 4 and under were irritability, drowsiness, decreased appetite, fatigue and injection site pain or tenderness. Moderna reported similar results.
“The benefits outweigh the risks,” said Canody, the BayCare pediatrician. “I almost look at vaccines like an insurance policy. You may never need to use that policy, but if you do, you want to have it in place. Because it can save your life.”
Messina, the All Children’s doctor, stressed that the virus is a persistent threat: “We’re reaching the point where it’s an endemic thing that’s probably not going to go away entirely.”