“That’s very, very disappointing,’’ said Dr. Hugo Scornik, a Conyers pediatrician who is president of the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Getting vaccinated is the best way to keep your child out of the hospital.”
The current virus surge — driven by the omicron variant – has pushed hospitalizations higher in children’s hospitals. Early this month, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta reported that it had 102 patients hospitalized in its system due to COVID — its highest number during the pandemic. Of those, 74% had at least one pre-existing medical condition.
“There’s a misconception that COVID doesn’t affect kids,’’ Scornik said. “We’re seeing tons of kids catching it.”
The national effort to vaccinate children has stalled even as the omicron variant upends schooling for millions of children and their families amid staffing shortages, shutdowns and heated battles over how to safely operate.
Vaccination rates vary substantially across the country, a Kaiser Health News analysis of the federal data shows. Nearly half of Vermont’s 5- to 11-year-olds are fully vaccinated, while fewer than 10% have gotten both shots in nine mostly Southern states.
Voices for Georgia’s Children, an advocacy group, called the Georgia vaccine rate for young children “disheartening.’’ Pediatric vaccination rates in Georgia tend to be higher in urban and suburban areas of the state and considerably lower in rural communities, which is in line with trends among adults.
Pediatricians nationally say the slow pace and geographic disparities are alarming, especially against the backdrop of record numbers of COVID cases and pediatric hospitalizations.
School-based vaccine mandates for students, which some pediatricians say are needed to boost rates substantially, remain virtually nonexistent.
“You have these large swaths of vulnerable children who are going to school,” said Dr. Samir Shah, a director at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Compounding the problem is that states with low vaccination rates “are less likely to require masking or distancing or other nonpartisan public health precautions,” he said.
In Louisiana, where 5% of kids ages 5 to 11 have been fully vaccinated, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, added the shot to the list of required school immunizations for the fall, over the objections of state legislators, who are mostly Republicans. The District of Columbia and California, where about 1 in 5 elementary school kids are fully vaccinated, have added similar requirements. But those places are exceptions.
Fifteen states, including Georgia, have banned COVID vaccine mandates in K-12 schools, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy.
Vaccine demand surged in November, with an initial wave of enthusiasm after the shot was approved for younger children. But parents have vaccinated younger kids at a slower pace than 12- to 15-year-olds, who became eligible in May, KHN reported. It took nearly six weeks for 1 in 5 younger kids to get their first shot, while adolescents reached that milestone in two weeks.
Experts cite several factors slowing the effort. Because kids are less likely than adults to be hospitalized or die from the virus, some parents are less inclined to vaccinate their children. Misinformation has fueled concerns about immediate and long-term health risks of the vaccine. And finding appointments at pharmacies or with pediatricians has been challenging.
Parents are left to weigh which is more of a threat to their children: the COVID virus or the vaccine to prevent the virus. Overwhelmingly, research shows, the virus itself presents a greater danger.
Kids can develop debilitating long-COVID symptoms or a potentially fatal post-COVID inflammatory condition. And new CDC research has found that children are at significantly higher risk of developing diabetes in the months after a COVID infection. Other respiratory infections, like the flu, don’t carry similar risks.
Katharine Lehmann, a physical therapist in Missouri, said she had concerns about myocarditis — a rare but serious side effect that causes inflammation of the heart muscle and is more likely to occur in boys than girls — and considered not vaccinating her two sons because of that risk. But after reading up on the side effects, she realized the condition is more likely to occur from the virus than the vaccine. “I felt safe giving it to my kids,” said Lehmann.
Recent data from scientific advisers to the CDC found that myocarditis was extremely rare among vaccinated 5- to 11-year-olds, identifying 12 reported cases as of Dec. 19 out of 8.7 million administered doses.
Nationally, a November KFF poll found that 29% of parents of 5- to 11-year-olds definitely wouldn’t vaccinate their children and that an additional 7% would do so only if required.
Though rates were similar for Black, white and Hispanic parents, political differences and location divided families. Only 22% of urban parents polled said they would not vaccinate their kids, while 49% of rural parents voiced opposition to the vaccinations. Half of Republican parents said they definitely said they wouldn’t vaccinate their kids, compared with just 7% of Democrats.
The Georgia Department of Public Health said Tuesday that it’s encouraging more pediatricians and family practice physicians to become COVID vaccine providers to help increase vaccination rates among children.
“We know that parents trust what their children’s health care providers tell them about the safety and efficacy of COVID vaccines,” said Public Health spokeswoman Nancy Nydam. “And those same providers can also share information about the complications and serious illness a child might suffer if they are not vaccinated.”
Andy Miller is editor of Georgia Health News.