Mistrust, misinformation, complacency and delays due to holidays and bad weather have combined to produce alarming COVID-19 vaccination rates among American children aged 5 to 11, authorities say.
As of Tuesday, just over 17% were fully vaccinated, more than two months after vaccines for the age group became available. While Vermont is at 48%, California is barely at 19% and Mississippi is only at 5%.
Vaccinations among the entire elementary school jumped after the vaccines were introduced in the fall, but numbers have slowly increased since then, and the explosive spread of omicron appears to have had little effect.
The low rates are “very concerning,” said Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “It’s just amazing.”
Hesitant parents are “taking a huge risk and continuing to fuel the pandemic,” Murphy said.
Hospitalizations of children under 18 with COVID-19 in the United States have reached their highest levels on record in recent weeks.
Low vaccination rates and increased hospitalizations are “a punch, especially when we’ve worked so hard to keep these children healthy,” said Dr. Natasha Burgert, a pediatrician in Overland Park, Kansas.
Vaccines have been shown to be very safe and effective in reducing the risk of serious illness, hospitalization and death.
Overall, 63% of Americans are fully immunized. Among children aged 12 to 17, the rate is 54%.
Injections of COVID-19 for young children have been authorized in at least 12 countries. In Canada, where Pfizer injections were authorized for ages 5 to 11 in November, only 2% are fully vaccinated.
Snowstorms, tornadoes and other inclement weather in December are thought to have slowed the pace of vaccination in the United States, as well as the busy holiday season. Yet many parents have other concerns.
Chicago mother Kendra Shaw resisted injections for her two school-age children, saying she was worried about the possible risks and wasn’t convinced the benefits were worth it.
But this week, her 10-year-old daughter begged for a shot so she wouldn’t miss school, and her future 7-year-old son asked for his shots so he could throw a big birthday party.
Shaw scheduled his first doses for Wednesday, but said, “I’m really on the fence.”
Daniel Kotzin of Denver said he was confident he made the right decision not to vaccinate his 5-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son because most cases of omicron appear to be mild.
“They are at virtually no risk of harm, so I really don’t understand the reason for vaccinating them,” he said.
Doctors say that kind of thinking is wrong and part of the problem.
“It’s true, children in general fare better than adults with COVID,” said Dr. Elizabeth Murray, a pediatric emergency physician in Rochester, New York, and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. , “but ‘not too sick’ yet can mean miserable with fever and muscle aches for a week. It can also mean MIS-C or long COVID.”
MIS-C, or Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome, is a rare but serious condition related to COVID-19 that can affect many organs and usually requires hospitalization.
Authorities do not believe omicron makes children and adults any more seriously ill than other variants, and say hospitalization rates have increased in part because it is much more contagious.
Some children have been admitted with underlying conditions such as lung disease, diabetes and sickle cell disease that worsened due to an omicron infection, doctors said.
Dr. Jesse Hackell, a pediatrician in Pomona, New York, said at least 25% of his patients between the ages of 5 and 11 are vaccinated, but after an initial rush in the fall the numbers have dwindled.
“It’s a hard sell,” he said. “We’re not ready” is a common comment, Hackell said. “When I ask, ‘What are you waiting for?’ I get a sort of shrug. I’ve heard some say, “We’re not going to be the first million.” We’ll wait and see what happens.”‘
A frustrated Hackell said the government’s vaccination campaign was clearly tackling misinformation and “pseudoscience”, the likes of which he had never seen before in his more than 40 years as a pediatrician.
He said the government should be tough and order the shootings.
“If we could get every child at every level vaccinated, that would go a long way. It wouldn’t end the pandemic, but it would end the serious illness,’ Hackell said. “It could help turn the virus into nothing more serious than the common cold, and we can deal with it.”