The number of children hospitalized with COVID has reached record highs. This, following the news from Pfizer that the approval of the COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 6 months to 5 years is farther away than initially expected, is devastating. As a pediatrician and mother of two kids under the age of 5, I am shattered. The deep desire to protect my kids, and everyone else’s, through vaccination, has consumed my thoughts for the better part of the last two years. I’m reminded though, that this type of delay is exactly why I want this vaccine so badly. It is the reason I trust the science behind vaccines. It is the reason all parents should trust the science.
I discuss the COVID-19 vaccine with all of my patients and their parents. One of the most common hesitations I hear is that the vaccine development was “rushed.” While the development and testing of the vaccine were expedited, it was not rushed. The timeline really started decades ago with the development of mRNA technology. Translating that technology to protect against COVID-19 specifically is obviously a more recent advance, but that does not diminish the decades of science behind the process.
Building onto this knowledge, the COVID-19 vaccine went into clinical trials. These trials look at both safety and efficacy. The vaccine for children ages 6 months to 5 years is one-tenth the dose of the adult vaccine. Pfizer has found that this smaller dose, while effective in children under 2, does not produce robust immunity in children aged 2 to 5 years.
While disheartening, this does not mean hope is lost. There have been no safety concerns identified in this final age group. This is wonderful news, but we also need to know that it works. While most young kids who catch COVID do not develop serious illness, some do. Kids are also impacted by the complications of COVID infection, including multi-system inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) and long COVID. Pfizer is now testing to see if a third dose produces the immunity needed to protect our children. Despite my disappointment, I am thankful that when I can get my children their shot, I know that it will work.
As a pediatrician and parent, my whole life, both at work and at home, revolves around people who cannot be protected from COVID-19 in the way I so desperately wish they could be.
In the US, 19.3 million children, including my own, cannot be vaccinated because they are too young. Twenty-eight million more kids are eligible, but a third of their parents have decided to “wait and see” before getting their children vaccinated. It’s not clear to me exactly what they are waiting to see because, by the time the vaccine is approved for use, we have already waited and seen through clinical trials.
Furthermore, the COVID-19 vaccine has been approved in children 5 years and up for over eight weeks. Vaccine side effects occur within the first few weeks following injection. We have seen no side effects in this age group that we did not anticipate. And yet vaccine rates are low.
In my state, Texas, only 18% of 5 to 11-year-old children have received one dose of the vaccine, and only 10% are fully vaccinated. As Omicron spreads rapidly across the country— while kids return to school following holiday gatherings— this number is frightening.
The final age group holds a special place in my heart. These kids are so innocent. They do not understand why we have had to live our lives the way we have for nearly two years. Many of these kids have never even lived in a world without a pandemic.
This new, longer wait is bittersweet though. As much as I wish I could fast forward time or even “rush” the process, that is not how we safely and effectively protect our children. As painful as it is, this wait is the reason I trust the science. It is the reason that when a safe and effective dose of vaccine is available, I will not hesitate to step in line to get it for my children. And it is the reason I hope you and your children will be in line with us.
About the Author:
Lauren Gambill is a pediatrician, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School, and Public Voices Fellow at the OpEd Project. Follow her on twitter @renkate