The United States reached another milestone in the societal battle against the two-and-a-half-year pandemic earlier this month when federal regulators approved the COVID-19 vaccine for infants, toddlers and preschoolers.
The vaccine will help protect our youngest loved ones from hospitalizations and long-term complications that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention correctly points out remain difficult to predict.
With the approvals, doses have been distributed, including to hospitals, health clinics and doctor’s offices. The vaccines are starting to become available. Now comes the final piece of the puzzle: making sure that a large majority of parents get their kids vaccinated.
It’s only now that virtually everyone is eligible, which means we can finally reach herd immunity. Children are a major source of COVID-19 spread. They’re not only a threat to each other in schools, camps, sports fields and everywhere else that they get together, but also to adults who are at high risk — including those with cancer, who are immunosuppressed, or who are grandparents (or others) over the age of 65.
A high vaccination rate will also lead to safer large gatherings and less risk when traveling. The benefits are clear.
But to effectively control COVID-19, parents need to trust the science. Surveys, like one released earlier this year by the Kaiser Family Foundation, showed that only about three in 10 parents of children under 5 would get their kids vaccinated right away.
That survey was conducted during the winter months, when hospitals, including those dedicated to pediatric care, had more COVID-19 cases, so it’s possible fewer than 30% will be willing to vaccinate their children today, as cases have waned. The lack of urgency can make us complacent, which is a good way to keep COVID-19 around longer than necessary.
There’s also the incorrect assumption that children don’t get sick from COVID-19. At Cohen Children’s Medical Center, we saw a large increase in general and intensive-care admissions during the first omicron wave, because that variant spread much more easily than previous variants.
While omicron is generally milder, the volume made it a challenge at pediatric hospitals nationwide.
Also, the underlying numbers show that over the last year, most patients in our ICU have been unvaccinated.
Some of those children have been under 5, and they’ve been threatened by upper airway disease and have experienced symptoms that resemble croup. Had the vaccine been available to those children earlier, many would have avoided hospitalization.
It’s my hope that by educating parents and the public in general, resistance to vaccinating children will wane. If so, children with developmental diseases, neurological problems, or other immune system issues will be saved from hospitalization or worse. Those are the kids we have to admit at our hospital. That’s been the case throughout the pandemic.
Meanwhile, a Pfizer trial showed a three-dose vaccine was 80% effective against symptomatic omicron-related COVID-19 infection among children under 5.
So, please, if your child is eligible to be vaccinated, vaccinate him or her. Increasing the percentage of vaccinated kids is a crucial step toward keeping everyone safe, especially the most at-risk members in society.
We need to see better vaccination rates among children, and we must have a better turnout for kids under 5. Only then can we start thinking about turning the page from COVID-19.
This guest essay reflects the views of Dr. Charles Schleien, senior vice president and chair of pediatric services at Northwell Health and chair of pediatrics at the Barbara & Donald Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell.