OPINION: Should kids under 12 get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Sofia Briceno, 10, gets her first COVID-19 vaccine shot at DeKalb Pediatric Center in Decatur on Thursday afternoon, Nov. 4, 2021. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Sofia Briceno, 10, gets her first COVID-19 vaccine shot at DeKalb Pediatric Center in Decatur on Thursday afternoon, Nov. 4, 2021. (Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

One day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 5-11, Sara Greene sat in the back seat of her car with her 5-year-old twins, holding them on her lap as they received the COVID-19 vaccine in the drive-thru clinic at Viral Solutions in Dunwoody.

“I feel relieved. So incredibly relieved,” said Greene, 42, of Lake Claire. “I have been chomping at the bit to get them vaccinated.”

The mother of three said she is afraid to get her hopes up too much but looks forward to a holiday season where everyone can feel safe. “From everything I have heard so far … we can be indoors, unmasked with other vaccinated people, which is mind-boggling to think about and is very exciting,” she said.

For every excited parent, there are likely just as many who are hesitant after the Nov. 2 recommendation that children ages 5-11 can receive a smaller dose (one-third) of the Pfizer vaccine than adults and children 12 and older.

The vaccine is still given in two doses, three weeks apart, and may still come with side effects, such as fever, chills, headache, muscle pain or tiredness, that last from one to three days. Some children will have no side effects, and in rare cases, some may have more serious side effects.

Recent polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that parental openness to vaccination decreases with a child’s age. Parents may not feel entirely at ease with concerns expressed by some members of a vaccine advisory panel of the Food and Drug Administration, including the suggestion that experts might wish to narrow the eligible population to kids with comorbidities that could increase the risk for complications of COVID-19.

There are about 28 million children of ages 5-11 in the United States, nearly 1 million of whom live in Georgia. My daughter is one of them, and like many parents, I have debated if I should wait eight months until she turns 12 or proceed with the smaller dose vaccine for the younger age group. As of Nov. 3, 0.5% of children ages 5-11 had received at least one dose, according to data from the CDC. About 57% of children ages 12-15 had received at least one dose.

This has been a hot topic among parent groups in metro Atlanta, and I wondered where parents were falling in their decisions. Mia Kurgan Atkins and her husband were in a similar position as I am, weighing their options, when external circumstances forced them to accelerate the decision for their children ages 7 and 9.

“Fulton County made us change our minds,” said Atkins, 50, of Sandy Springs.

As of late October, masks were optional in county schools with low infection rates for two consecutive weeks. Thirty days following the vaccine eligibility for children 5 and older, masks will be optional in all buildings for students, staff and visitors, but masks must still be worn on school buses to comply with federal mandates.

“Basically, they have forced our hand, and we decided that at the very first moment we would be able to get our kids vaccinated, that was what we were going to do,” Atkins said. So she took them to the drive-thru vaccine clinic at their pediatrician’s office to get shots after school last Thursday.

She said her children will continue to wear masks at school per current CDC recommendations even after they are vaccinated and even as some of their schoolmates go maskless. “They understand there are kids in their class that choose not to wear a mask, but that is not how we do things. They don’t get that same choice,” she said.

ExploreMasks to be optional in all Fulton County schools

Atkins and her husband were early adopters of the vaccine for adults, she said, reaching full vaccination status in February. “For us, it was important because our parents are in their 70s,” said Atkins, adding that it feels like a gut punch when she sees elderly people in the grocery store without a mask. “I am like, what do they know that I don’t?” she said.

Despite making a broad callout to parent groups, I did not hear from any parents who do not plan on vaccinating their children. I wish that wasn’t the case because I really wanted to explore and share the concerns of parents who are making a different choice than the parents I spoke with because ultimately, we all have a choice.

Michelle Robison of Decatur said she made the choice to vaccinate her 6-year-old, and she had previously enrolled her 3-year-old in the Moderna vaccine trial, which is currently in stage 3.

“The pandemic overall has turned moms and parents into risk managers,” said Robison, 41. “What we have tried to do is follow the science and follow what the risks are. What we don’t know we don’t know. What I do know is that long-term vaccine effects are extremely uncommon.”

The long-term risks of a childhood case of COVID-19, however, are completely unknown, she said, noting that her grandfather who suffers from a disorder of the nervous system had childhood polio. The disease was eradicated in the U.S. in 1979, but we now know it can result in nerve and muscle disorders known as post-polio syndrome, which strikes survivors of the disease 15 to 40 years after recovery, according to the neurological division of the National Institutes of Health.

Robison signed up for a slot at Viral Solutions to get her 6-year-old vaccinated ASAP. “For me, the benefits outweigh the risks,” Robison said. There are kids dying of COVID-19, kids being orphaned by parents who have died of COVID-19, she said. “I realize it may not be frequent, but I don’t like playing the odds with my kids,” Robison said.

I am pretty risk averse in most things and constantly weigh the pros and cons of different options. I signed my daughter up to get a COVID-19 vaccine because she is at the upper end of the 5-to-11 age group and having it will allow her to do things she currently can’t do, including spend time indoors, unmasked with other vaccinated individuals without worry. That is my choice, and in the end, having the option is what matters.

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