By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org
As a physician and a parent, Dr. Sarah Bosslett couldn’t be more pleased with this week’s news that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for kids ages 5-11 is so close to receiving emergency use authorization from the FDA.
Her youngest child and 28 million other children in that age range around the country will have access to a kid-sized dose of the vaccine that has proven remarkably effective at curbing serious disease and death in adults.
An FDA advisory panel voted Tuesday to accept data that shows the smaller dose is safe and 90.7% effective in preventing infection in the 5-11 age group. The regulatory agency and the CDC are expected to approve it within the next few days, opening the door for the vaccine to be available next week at hospitals, pediatricians’ offices, health clinics and pharmacies.
Dr. Bosslett, a pediatrician with Riley Children’s Health at the Georgetown Road office on the northwest side of Indianapolis, says it can’t come soon enough.
She and her husband have four children. The older two, both 15, were vaccinated when approval was granted for the 12- to 17-year-old age group to receive the two-part shot in May.
The couple’s younger daughter couldn’t wait to get her shot when she turned 12 recently. Unfortunately, she woke up sick on the morning of her birthday and tested positive for COVID. She was pretty sick for several days but recovered, her mom said, and has since been vaccinated.
That leaves the youngest, 7-year-old Bram, who is ready for his turn.
“WHEN CAN I GET MY COVID SHOT?”
“All of my kids, as soon as they’ve been able to get the vaccine, they want it.” Dr. Bosslet said. “They just want life back to normal. They want to see their friends, they want to do overnights. They want all of that back.”
And they don’t want to miss anymore school, she said, noting the two younger kids have missed nearly three weeks of school this year, despite a mask mandate being in place in their Pike Township schools.
“Even my 7-year-old is like, ‘When can I get my COVID shot? I don’t want to wear a mask anymore. I just want this to be over.’”
Like Bram, everyone wants this to be over.
Dr. James Wood, an infectious disease specialist at Riley Hospital in Downtown Indianapolis, has seen the toll the virus has taken on his pediatric patients up close. The vaccine can prevent unnecessary pain and suffering, he said.
“From my standpoint, it is the best thing we can do for kids to protect them. It is still rare that kids get very sick and hospitalized with COVID, but every time I see a kid in the ICU, which in the last few weeks has been many, I just think that if they’d only been vaccinated, we almost certainly wouldn’t be in this position.”
Although serious infection in kids might be rare, he said, “when it happens to your child, it’s real.”
“Seeing those kids, seeing those parents, and thinking that this was preventable, it’s heartbreaking,” the physician and father said.
Dr. Wood and his wife have two children, ages 5 and 7. They’ve spoken to the kids about the importance of the upcoming shot.
“Although they’re not loving the idea of getting a needle in the arm, they are well aware and ready to go,” he said.
He is so confident in the vaccine, he signed his kids up for a clinical trial in Cincinnati when it was in the testing stage. They didn’t get in to the trial then, but now, “We’re gonna get in line as soon as we can.”
Dr. Bosslett, Dr. Wood and their colleagues in pediatric medicine understand the fatigue parents feel over COVID. They feel it too. The masks, the testing, the quarantining, the missed days of school and work. And, of course, the worry that every sniffle is the start of COVID.
“It’s been a slog. People are just emotionally spent and tired,” Dr. Bosslett said.
She worries that too many parents will choose not to get their child vaccinated. Some are uneasy, and some are unwilling.
It’s those parents who might be persuaded when given accurate information from trusted sources that she and her colleagues hope to reach.
Many of the parents who come to her, perhaps when their child is already sick, just have questions, she said.
“Honestly, sometimes they just need me to sit in there while their child gets the vaccine so they feel better about it. They’re just nervous.”
Even though widespread use of mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) is new, the technology has been studied for decades, according to HealthyChildren.org. They do not contain any live or dead parts of the virus.
Dr. Bosslett encourages anyone who needs more information to go to a reliable source, most likely their physician, to ask questions. And she steers them to this trusted website.
REACHING THOSE WHO WILL LISTEN
Getting the vaccine approved is one thing, Dr. Wood said. Getting people to take it is the next big hurdle. That’s why he and his colleagues work so hard to understand why people are hesitant.
“We’ve spoken with folks who have dealt with vaccine hesitancy before COVID, trying to understand the best way to approach families and parents,” he said. “The bottom line is there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to talking to families. Everybody’s coming at this from a different perspective, with different information.”
The people who need good information and who are willing to listen are the people he believes he can reach.
“With so much misinformation out there, our role is really to provide the science and the good data and give it to people in an understandable and digestible form,” he said. “We need to understand what folks are worried about and then address those worries.”
Still, he believes at least half of parents of eligible kids will adopt a wait-and-see approach. Many won’t consider it at all.
“Nobody likes to be told they have to do something, but I want people to ask the right questions of the right people and not get their information from Facebook,” Dr. Wood said.
“The bottom line is, it’s safe and it’s effective. The benefits heavily outweigh any risk,” he said.
(There have been reports of a small number of people developing mild heart inflammation after receiving the vaccine, though none of the 3,000 kids ages 5-11 in Pfizer’s trial developed that condition.)
“WE NEED TO GET THIS DONE”
Dr. Wood said he is excited for his kids to have the protection provided by the vaccine, and he wants the same for all children.
The same goes for Dr. Bosslet. That’s why she hopes that she and her peers can reassure parents by getting their own children vaccinated as soon as possible. And even doing it in front of cameras to communicate the sense of urgency they feel.
“If we don’t model it and we’re not prepared and we don’t show from the get-go that this is important, if we are on our heels, then people are going to see this as not a big deal, not urgent,” she said.
Instead, she hopes it will resonate with other parents when they see her getting her 7-year-old son vaccinated.
“Here is my child. I’m vaccinating him, and these are the reasons why,” she said. “I think they need to see that and hear it and know that this isn’t something that you do if you want to. We need to get this done.”
So, come next week, she hopes to be seeing a crush of parents coming in to get their children a COVID shot. But she is realistic.
“I don’t know how much more telling it can be that all of the medical people are like, let’s go. We’re trying to get that group in the middle who can be swayed. If we can show them that we think this is important enough that we are having our own children vaccinated, that will help.”
Riley Hospital and its pediatric physician offices are expected to receive an initial shipment of the vaccine next week, pending FDA authorization. Details on how and where to get your child vaccinated will be announced next week.