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Parental hesitancy about COVID-19 vaccines could leave kids unprotected, thwart herd immunity

Eric Risberg

While more than 71% of Pennsylvania adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the state’s department of health, the commonwealth may have trouble achieving herd immunity because of low vaccination rates among those under 18.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that when kids are included the vaccination rate drops below 60%.

Even though kids as young as 12 have been eligible for the Pfizer vaccine since May 10, less than half of Pennsylvania adolescents are fully vaccinated. So, it might take a while before the entire state passes the 70% vaccinated mark.

Compared to younger children, teens tend to go to the doctor less, remarked infectious disease pediatrician Dr. Courtney Gidengil. Since school-age kids have more opportunities to get vaccinated, their rates could end up being higher once the federal government approves the COVID-19 vaccine for 5-11-year-olds, which is anticipated to happen in the coming weeks.

But data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy nonprofit, show parents are more cautious when it comes to younger children.

“People see their kids as more vulnerable than adults, and there’s this duty to protect them the younger they are,” said Gidengil, a researcher at the Rand Corporation.

Another factor is perhaps a parent or guardian’s inability to take time off to get kids vaccinated or care for their children if they experience a day or two of side effects.

Kaiser’s research shows that even when parents are fully vaccinated some may hesitate when it comes to their kids.

“They’re weighing whether the risks of the virus and concerns they have over the the facts on the ground change and [the Delta variant’s] spread continues,” said Kaiser analyst Lunna Lopes, who noted that data show parents become even more cautious with kids under age five.

Some parents might also wait and see what other families in their community decide before vaccinating their own children. There’s evidence this has happened among parents of teens. A Kaiser survey in April found that 34% of parents had gotten their adolescents vaccinated or wanted to do so “right away.” By July this group had grown to 47%.

These numbers are still too low for the state and country to pass the 70% threshold, which some experts believe is when a population starts to gain herd immunity. But with the circulation of many infectious variants, no one really knows the exact level.

Another possible worry is that rates of myocarditis, or heart inflammation, in teen boys and young men after the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are higher compared to other groups. The CDC says most cases have been mild.

Experts point out that there are more risks associated with a COVID-19 infection than with a COVID-19 vaccination.

Furthermore, unlike earlier in the pandemic, kids and teens are comprising a greater percentage of cases and hospitalizations, Therefore, Lopes wonders if this means “calculations might be changing” for some families.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.
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