RACINE — Kids as young as 12 may soon be able to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and doctors are saying they should both for their own safety — in the cases of rare instances of severe illness — and to prevent youths from spreading the novel coronavirus to older people who may be more likely to get severely ill from the virus.
Pfizer recently announced it has applied for an emergency use authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds and said it could apply for an EUA for younger children as early as September.
In advance, the medical community has begun reaching out to parents and guardians to answer their questions. On Wednesday, medical professionals from Milwaukee-based Advocate Aurora Health took to Facebook for a livestreamed question-and-answer program, addressing the public’s concerns about vaccinating children and teens.
Jim Skogsbergh, CEO of Advocate Aurora Health, opened the session with the good news and the bad news. While half of US adults have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, he noted, demand is beginning to slow.
“The COVID cases in Illinois and Wisconsin remind us we’re not out of the woods yet,” he added.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, as of Wednesday, 43.7% of Wisconsinites and 40.1% of Racine County residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
‘More security’ for vulnerable
Pfizer in March released preliminary results from a study of 2,260 U.S. volunteers ages 12 to 15, showing there were no cases of COVID-19 among fully vaccinated children compared with 18 among those given dummy shots.
That is welcome news for Robin and Aaron Perry of Sun Prairie, who have five boys, ages 5 to 17. Their oldest, Cooper, has been battling leukemia and contracted COVID-19 in November, in what his mother described as a “terrifying” time for the family. The disease spread to the rest of the family.
They all pulled through, and Cooper and his parents have all since been vaccinated. But his mother can’t wait for her 15-year-old, Reece, and 12-year-old, Tucker, to get their shots so their brother is as protected as possible.
“It feels like more security around Cooper with a compromised immune system,” Robin Perry said. “It’s just being part of the solution. That’s what excites me the most. It’s an added level of protection. Maybe you can take a deeper breath.”
The first question concerned eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccination. Dr. Frank Belmonte, chief medical officer for Advocate Children’s Hospital, pointed out that about a month ago, most states lowered the eligibility age for the vaccine to 16; that occurred in Wisconsin on April 5.
“At about the same time, Pfizer filed for emergency use authorization for 12- to 15-year-olds,” Belmonte said. “So we’re waiting on that and we hope that any day now, the FDA will OK the vaccine for that age group as well.”
Skogsbergh said: “Everybody wants to know if it’s safe.”
“It is safe,” responded Dr. Markeita Moore, pediatrician with Advocate Children’s Medical Group. “We highly recommend it — us and the AAP (American Association of Pediatricians).”
The reality is that children can get COVID-19.
In April, 22% of all COVID cases were pediatric cases, she said. In Wisconsin, about 7,500 per 100,000 juveniles will get COVID, according to Moore.
Belmonte reminded the audience the issue was not just kids getting COVID, but it was also a matter of where they took it. He explained in the 12-18 age range, there was a 20% transmissibility rate.
“So even if they don’t get really sick from the virus, they can spread it to family members and other folks,” he added.
When asked if they were both “all-in” for immunizing children against COVID-19, both Moore and Belmonte answered with an emphatic “yes.”
Belmonte noted, from an inpatient viewpoint, “there have been children hospitalized since the beginning of the pandemic — some who have been quite ill.”
Rare but scary syndrome
Belmonte and Moore took the opportunity to point out there are concerns other than COVID.
For example, since June 2020 there have been cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C).
According to the CDC, MIS-C is a condition where different body parts can become inflamed, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes or gastrointestinal organs.
Although doctors do not know what causes MIS-C, there was an uptick in cases in children who had the virus that causes COVID-19 or were exposed to the virus.
Moore noted that in October there were about 1,000 cases. By February, that number had doubled, and by April it had tripled.
Belmonte and Moore also addressed the hesitancy that some feel about the vaccine, especially when it comes to their children. These patients are oftentimes not “anti-vaxxers” — that is those who refuse to use any vaccines for reasons based not on any real science — but those who are just holding back in a sort of “wait and see.” As Skogsbergh noted, this has been especially true in communities of color.
Moore agreed she has experienced the hesitancy in her office. “It’s understandable why they are hesitant because of the mistrust,” Moore said.
She added there simply exists mistrust between communities of color and the medical community — so the medical community must build that trust.
Moore said: “It’s my job to instill trust, and just to listen, and to see what their fears are, and to give them everything that I’ve learned, so they can see that it’s safe.”
Belmonte added that some people are just nervous about getting the vaccine because they do not understand the science.
Moore added there are other parents who are willing to have their children vaccinated — as soon as the FDA approves the shot for people younger than 16 years old.
“So we do have a demand,” she said.
Reporting from Heather Hollingsworth and Todd Richmond of the Associated Press contributed to this story.