Taking a wait-and-see on COVID-19 vaccines for young kids? You’re probably not alone

This week, many parents of young children across the D.C. area lined up to get COVID-19 shots for their young children.

Kids as young as six months old are the final age group eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19. At a vaccine clinic at D.C.’s Children’s National Hospital, one pediatrician called it a milestone moment in the response to the pandemic.

But many parents of young children are likely to take a wait-and-see approach — at least according to the results of a recent survey.

A Kaiser Health News survey released in May — when the federal approval for vaccines for young kids was delayed to give more time to gather safety and efficacy data — reported only about a fifth of U.S. parents, about 18%, said they planned to get their young kids vaccinated right away.

A total of 38% of parents said they would take a wait-and-see approach. About 27% of respondents said they would “definitely not” have their young kids vaccinated.

“It was fair for parents to say: ‘Hey, I want a little more time. I want to see how it goes,'” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco.

Gandhi was speaking on the WTOP daily podcast “DMV Download,” hosted by Megan Cloherty and Luke Garrett.

With 17 million children in the U.S. younger than 5, the early adopters’ experiences could help persuade some parents who are more reluctant.

“Then they’ll have a lot of safety data — the other parents — to look at, and say, ‘OK, I feel more comfortable now vaccinating my child,'” she said.

Given the fact that so many children have already been exposed to COVID, some parents may be wondering if there are any real benefits to getting them vaccinated.

For example, a seroprevalence study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in the spring found that about 75% of children under the age of 18 have already been exposed to the virus.

“Natural infection definitely protects you from COVID-19,” Gandhi said. “But there’s been a lot of studies that what’s called ‘hybrid immunity’ — getting at least one vaccine after natural infection — increases your protection from symptomatic COVID. So just giving one dose after there’s been natural infection really strengthens our immunity. And there’s been study after study — we call it hybrid immunity, super immunity — that there’s a strengthening of the combination of infection plus vaccination.”

In the Kaiser survey, another 11% of parents said they would get their young kids vaccinated only if required to do so.

But Gandhi said she doesn’t believe schools should mandate that young kids get vaccinated.

“I do not think that there should be any mandates for the fall. I think that it would be great to get vaccinated but no mandates for school, because many parents are not ready and we don’t want to disrupt learning,” she said.

The two vaccines approved for use in children 6 months to 5 years of age are those made by Pfizer and Moderna, which have both prepared special tot-sized doses.

The Pfizer vaccine for young kids is 3 micrograms — one microgram is one millionth of a gram — which is given in three doses. The first two doses are given three weeks apart and the third dose is to be given eight weeks after the second.

The Moderna vaccine is made up of two doses of 25 micrograms given a month apart.

In the trials, both vaccine options “increased antibodies really nicely,” Gandhi said. “In fact, the antibody levels were higher than an adult, which is really your marker that you’re producing an adequate immune response to protect the child.”

Gandhi said the clinical trials indicated the third Pfizer dose provided even more protection from even mild COVID infections, which is possible evidence that more widely spacing out doses leads to a more effective immune response, she said.

“That’s one theory that’s come out,” she said.

Another factor for parents to consider: There were more reported side effects with Moderna, including reported fevers in children after getting vaccinated, although nothing dangerous. There were no fevers reported in children who received the Pfizer dose, she said.

“I think parents can choose either one,” Gandhi said. “It’s convenient to do the two (doses); the three may seem like it takes too long. But on the other hand, there were no fevers in that Pfizer dose.”

Another question some reluctant parents may be asking: Given the low incidence of severe infection in young children, is there still a benefit to getting them vaccinated?

Yes, Gandhi says.

In the trials, in fact, none of the enrolled children — either those who received the placebo or the vaccine — experienced severe illness.

“But the reason to get vaccinated now is they are more at risk for severe disease later,” Gandhi said. “And beyond that, we do a lot of childhood vaccines where the risk may become higher later, and it just gives you the cellular immunity that’s the basis for long-standing protection.”

Overall, nearly two-and-half years into the pandemic, Gandhi acknowledges it’s been an exhausting series of ups and downs as the virus periodically surges.

Gandhi said data from around the world now indicates a “decoupling” of cases of COVID-19 and deaths from the virus.

“That was already starting to be seen with vaccinated people in the delta era. It was seen with vaccinated people in the omicron era,” she said. “But at this, it’s kind of across the board, because we have so much natural immunity. … Cases are surging, but the deaths are staying very low — lower than they’ve been since March of 2020.”

Gandhi said she’s hopeful for an “OK summer.”

“I think the two things that should give people security about the summer is we now have vaccines available for the entire swath of the population — that is pretty profound,” Gandhi said. “Second is that we have treatments, and that’s really important when you think about older people who are more at risk for severe breakthroughs.”

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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