COVID-19 shots for Memphis’ youngest kids arrived Wednesday at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, where the next steps will be communicating with families about why and how to get them.
Medical experts at Le Bonheur, Baptist Memorial Hospital, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Shelby County Health Department agree the vaccines for young children who are at least six months old and younger than five years are safe and effective.
“The vaccine is the best way to protect children from COVID-19,” Michelle Taylor, director of the Shelby County Health Department, wrote by email. “While children have lower risk of death and hospitalization from COVID-19, they can and do get very sick and develop lingering health impacts after COVID-19 infection.”
But survey data, combined with low vaccine uptake among kids ages five to 11, suggest this round of vaccine approval will not be as widely sought as initial vaccines for adults, which inspired lengthy wait times and social media posts describing where shots may be. Parents are hesitant, or at least less urgent, about shots for kids.
“I think there’s going to be a large group of people that have been waiting for it for so long, and they’re in a rush to get it,” said Dr. Nick Hysmith, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Le Bonheur. “I’m concerned there might be a pretty steep drop off after that.”
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Most parents of kids who are at least six months and younger than five years plan to “wait and see” about vaccinating them, according to Kaiser Family Foundation survey data from April. The share of parents who plan to vaccinate their kids right away has dwindled from 31% in January, around the height of omicron, to just 18% as of April.
More than a quarter of parents will not vaccinate their children at all, survey data shows.
“There are some things in life that wait-and-see strategy works for,” said Stephen Threlkeld, co-chair of the infection control program at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis. “I have watched many people die of this infection who were deciding to wait and see.”
Most of the 3,334 deaths from COVID-19 in Shelby County have been among people aged 55 or older, and the outcome, relative to infection, is unlikely. Still, five children have died of COVID-19 in Shelby County, among 1,000 across the country, and dozens of others have been hospitalized locally for severe disease and for complications of COVID-19, like multisystem inflammatory syndrome or MIS-C.
“You have something where the risk is super small, the vaccine, or the potential to have a severe, possibly fatal illness,” Hysmith said. “In my mind it’s a no brainer, really, to get the vaccine.”
When can my child get a vaccine in Memphis?
The Tennessee Department of Health on Monday said the state had preordered COVID-19 vaccines for the “next available age group” and expected them to be available at local health departments within a few days.
The department has recommended everyone who is eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine to do so.
Since then, some Republican lawmakers in Tennessee have called on Gov. Bill Lee to block distribution, promotion and recommendations of the vaccine, echoing similar pressures against adolescent vaccines last summer, right before the Delta variant sent more children to the hospital than previous variants and infections wrecked back-to-school plans.
“I was very sad,” Hysmith said, “when I saw that’s immediately where we were going … You should not have a child die of COVID because they’s not vaccinated.”
Le Bonheur received a shipment of vaccine Wednesday and is working on opening up appointments and scheduling a vaccination event in July.
The Shelby County Health Department will offer vaccines for the new age group of kids six months or older and younger than five as soon as it receives protocols from the state health department.
“We anticipate that will be very soon,” Taylor said by email Wednesday. “If not this week, then by early next week.”
Once that happens, shots will be available for free at two health department locations, 814 Jefferson Ave. in Suite 207 and 1826 Sycamore View Rd., on Mondays through Fridays between 8 am and 4:30 pm
Two expert panels, one for the Food and Drug Administration and the other for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reviewed safety and effectiveness data on the shots last week, more than two years after the pandemic began.
They looked at data from both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. The number and dosages differ from one another, but otherwise the shot is essentially the same formula as what has been distributed to vaccinated adults, who have benefited from lower infection rates and less severe infections, as well as fewer deaths among America’s total loss of a million lives.
Both panels unanimously found that the benefits of vaccination for children 6 months to 5-6 years outweigh the risks. Members of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) were adamant Saturday that parents should take the opportunity to protect their children against COVID-19.
What are the benefits to getting a vaccine? What are the risks?
All four of the medical professionals said the benefits of the vaccine exceeded any risk, and recommended the shot as a safe and effective measure for young children who could, though in rare instances, face severe disease or death as a consequence of COVID-19.
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Threlkeld, the Baptist doctor, described the under five population as a “last frontier of unprotected people,” who, because of the fairly rare experience of severe disease or death due to COVID-19 has had “a slight false sense of security” about their health.
“I think that no one who is well read about this illness would suggest that getting the infection is a safer way to gain immunity than getting the vaccine,” Threlkeld said.
Diego Hijano, a faculty member in the department of infectious diseases at St. Jude, wrote in an emailed response about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines for young children and the effectiveness of the vaccine at preventing severe disease, death and MIS-C.
“These vaccines are safe and what we have seen is no different to what we see with other pediatric vaccines,” Hijano said via email in prepared responses. “The most common side effects are local, mild and resolve within 1-2 days.”
Those effects could be pain or redness where the child gets the shot, and children could become cranky, sleepy or less hungry, he said. Fever, a side effect of the vaccine in adults, is not commonly seen in kids.
“It is extremely unlikely that any vaccination, including COVID-19 vaccination, could cause a long-term health problems,” Hijano said.
Threlkeld acknowledged a parent’s instinct to protect their children. Using anecdotal data he knows about fellow physicians who are parents, he cautioned: “When you see the population of parents who know the most about this disease being the highest percentage at vaccinating their kids, that should be something that people should take notice of. “
In addition to the health benefits to the child, vaccinating them also benefits their community of peers, Threlkeld said. That goes for instances where a child could pass vaccine along to an elderly family member or another child who is immunocompromised.
Beyond the immediate health impact, the vaccine is likely to improve the social health of children. And, at the least, minimize disruptions to their learning and to family schedules.
“We’ve been quarantine like six times in the last two years,” Hysmith, the Le Bonheur doctor, said of his child at daycare. “So I’m really excited to get him vaccinated.”
Reporters at USA Today and The Tennessean contributed.
Laura Testino covers education and children’s issues for the Commercial Appeal. Reach her at [email protected] or 901-512-3763. Find her on Twitter: @LDTestino