CASSANDRA SCHWARTZ: I feel like I've been holding my breath for, like, the past year.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Parents like Cassandra Schwartz are finally exhaling.
SCHWARTZ: My baby's been in a grocery store one time in her entire life. We don't go anywhere that's inside with her, you know, that's not, like, a friend's house that we fully vetted or her day care. So, like, I'm excited to be able to, like, if I need to go grocery shopping and take her with me, I can do that.
CHANG: She can do that, she says, because COVID vaccines are now available for kids under 5 years old. It took a minute to get here. Vaccines for children ages 5 through 11 were authorized last fall. Then weeks and months slowly ticked by. And parents of toddlers like Schwartz wondered, hey, remember us?
SCHWARTZ: When everyone else could get vaccinated and the under-5s couldn't, and the rest of the - in the whole, it felt like state and local and national governments were like, all right, cool. Everyone's vaccinated. No more mask mandates. We don't have to be as careful, don't have to worry about social distancing. And it just felt like we were forgotten.
CHANG: Well, finally, last month, the FDA authorized vaccines for children between 6 months and 5 years of age, and shots started going into tiny arms and thighs. But parents like Schwartz, who are eager to get their very young kids vaccinated, are a minority because, you see, only about 1 in 5 parents plan to vaccinate their children as soon as they are eligible, according to a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Almost 40% of parents say they want to wait a bit longer to see how the vaccine works for others. More than half of the people polled say they just don't have enough information.
CONSIDER THIS - COVID vaccines for kids under 5 are rolling out. Lots of parents have questions, and we will try to answer some of yours. From NPR, I'm Ailsa Chang. It's Wednesday, July 6.
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CHANG: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. COVID vaccines are now authorized for kids between the ages of 6 months and 5 years old, which is great news for the parents who are eager to get their kids vaccinated. But for many, this news means more questions. And joining me now to answer some of those questions are NPR health correspondent Rob Stein and Dr. Nia Heard-Garris. She's a pediatrician and researcher at Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. Welcome to both of you.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Nice to be here.
NIA HEARD-GARRIS: Thanks for having us.
CHANG: Thanks for being here. Rob, I want to start with an update on the whole campaign to vaccinate this very last group to become eligible. We're talking about kids younger than age 5. How are things going so far in that campaign?
STEIN: Well, you know, the federal government hasn't released any hard numbers yet about how many kids have gotten the shots. But the early indication so far is that the demand for the shots for these littlest ones is living up to expectations, which frankly, were very low. That's because most parents of kids ages 5 to 11 still haven't gotten their kids vaccinated, even though they've been eligible for months. And the parents of the younger kids are even more reluctant. The pace at which states started off ordering the vaccine was pretty lackluster. So the Biden administration has been warning that it will take a while to convince most parents to get their shots for their little kids. That said, there definitely are many parents out there who have been waiting for a long time for these vaccines and have been eager to get their kids vaccinated.
CHANG: What about this whole choice between Pfizer versus Moderna for really young kids? Is there a preference that you have?
HEARD-GARRIS: That's a great question. This question keeps coming up for a lot of my patients. We really think that the Pfizer and Moderna have equal efficacy, meaning that both are effective, and they're both going to keep your kids safe against COVID - you know, at least prevent them from being in the hospital and getting really, really sick. So, bottom line - just go get whatever you can. They're both safe and effective and approved by the FDA.
CHANG: I'm going to start now with Amanda Gray from Bangor, Maine. She writes, quote, "I feel like I have been waiting two-plus years for this news that I could finally get my daughter vaccinated. And here I am thinking, maybe it's best to wait? The current COVID strain is not as fatal, especially in young children. Do I wait to vaccinate till right before back to school? Should I wait until a more aggressive and lethal strain circulates, perhaps this winter? I don't want to vaccinate her now and then have a bad strain occur in six months when the efficacy has waned, and she's not eligible for a booster." OK. Dr. Heard-Garris, what do you say to Amanda Gray?
HEARD-GARRIS: I say, Amanda, I hear you. I get it. You're not alone. But I want to let you know, you know, omicron may appear less virulent because there's a fair number of people that have already been exposed to COVID. They've had COVID, or they've been vaccinated against it. So it actually offers some protection to the rest of us. And so that's why it seems less virulent. But for a child that has not been exposed or vaccinated to COVID, that's not true. And they're still at risk. So they still face the same risk of mortality, and they still face the same risk of hospitalization. So I would say, Amanda, don't wait. Go get your kid vaccinated. We've been waiting for two years. Go out. Do it.
CHANG: Next step is Felix Ortiz from Canton, Ohio.
FELIX ORTIZ: Why is it taking long for some of the local health departments, as well as children's hospitals, to be able to get the right doses? I have contacted both of mine here, and I've been told that it might be until early July before they're able to get the right doses.
CHANG: OK. So for the parents who want to just go and get their kids vaccinated, they can. Rob, can you answer this question from Felix Ortiz?
STEIN: You know, Ailsa, the answer to that one isn't entirely clear, and the explanation probably varies, you know, from place to place around the country. But one reason I've been hearing for why the vaccines aren't more widely available is the way they've been packaged, believe it or not. They come in 10-dose vials that have to be used within 12 hours. And many doctors are apparently hesitant to order the vaccines because they don't have 10 kids to vaccinate every time they puncture a vial. And they're afraid they'll end up wasting a lot of vaccine. I talked about this with Claire Hannan. She's the executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers.
CLAIRE HANNAN: It's been a lot of education of providers and encouraging them that it's OK to waste vaccine. They need to worry more about wasting an opportunity to vaccinate than to worry about wasting the nine remaining doses in the vial.
STEIN: You know, that's because there's plenty of vaccine available. And even though COVID-19 doesn't necessarily pose as great a risk to kids as it does to older people, you know, as we heard, it still can be quite dangerous.
CHANG: OK. Let's now move on to a question from Allison Cloyd from Arvada, Colo. She writes, quote, "with the efficacy of Moderna being so much lower for the under-5 crowd and Pfizer having a very small sample size, is it worth having my 3-year-old vaccinated if she tested positive for COVID in February? How does that calculus change knowing we have a 10-week-old baby who can't be vaccinated yet but is breastfed - parentheses, I'm triple vaxxed - and was still in utero when I had COVID at that same time?" Dr. Heard-Garris, there's a lot to unpack here, but maybe you can give some advice to Allison here.
HEARD-GARRIS: Yeah. I - you know, I think it's a good question, especially since, you know, her child, Allison's child, was actually positive for COVID-19 in February. And even though she had it in February, her immunity is starting to wane. So we say about, you know, 30 to 90 days after getting a COVID-19 infection is an ideal time. It's still safe. You can immediately get your COVID-19 vaccination right after. But if you want to wait some time, you know, 30 to 90 days is still the safe window. She's well beyond that now. So I think it's time for Allison's child to get vaccinated, especially because she has a vulnerable 10-week-old at home.
CHANG: Well, Rob, here's a question from Grace Cummings of Lexington Park, Md. She writes, quote, "my local health department has been very slow to issue information about vaccines for under 5. And they're also slow to acquire and distribute them. I'm taking my daughter to our neighboring county to get vaccinated this week. I've heard this is similar in other areas and it wasn't this slow for the adult vaccines. I also saw a lot more information and outreach for the adult and older child vaccines. Why the slow rollout here?" What do you think, Rob?
STEIN: Yeah, so part of it may be that issue about wasting vaccine that we talked about earlier, but part of it may be that individual, you know, counties aren't being as aggressive about promoting vaccine as the federal government would like, you know. And another reason is the emphasis for these very young children has been on administering the vaccine more at pediatrician's offices instead of going through, like, big mass vaccination clinics or even pharmacies, you know. So some pharmacies are giving out the shots but not nearly as many as during the earlier booster and vaccine campaigns. And that's because many pharmacies aren't set up to give shots to these little kids and because parents are more comfortable bringing babies and toddlers to their own pediatricians, who they know and they trust. And the thinking is, you know, many kids may end up getting the shots when the kids come in for other things, like their routine vaccinations or well-child visits.
HEARD-GARRIS: For people that are really frustrated with how things are going in their county, there's not a better time than right now to work with your public health leaders and policymakers to ask why. And so that the next time this happens or the next time we're faced with a pandemic - hopefully not anytime soon - we have these relationships and inroads built and can really push our policymakers to give - to put kids first and to make sure that they have the same access, if not better access, than adults and older kids have. I think it's really important to think about how we start building these relationships, how we hold policymakers accountable.
CHANG: All right. And our final listener question is from Vadnais Heights, Minn.
HOPE SAVARIA: Hello. My name is Hope Savaria. And my question is, what sorts of side effects should we expect for the 24 hours or so after the vaccine? Will it be similar to those seen in adults, mild flu-like symptoms? And is there anything we can do to help mitigate these effects, such as administering children's Tylenol or ibuprofen before the vaccine?
CHANG: I remember I had a really swollen left armpit. What do you think, Dr. Heard-Garris? What kind of symptoms will we see in these young kids?
HEARD-GARRIS: So sometimes, kids will have fever. They'll have some pain at the site and redness and swelling at that injection site. And that's really similar to some of the other vaccines that we typically give. They also might be irritable, and they might be fussy. They might be a little bit more sleepy or not want to eat as much as they normally eat. All, again, pretty, pretty common. But specifically with the COVID-19 vaccines, they might have some swelling. So just like you, Ailsa, had some swelling under your arms and others might have swelling in their groin (ph) area. And that's just where their lymph nodes are. So the lymph nodes kind of get bigger and swollen. It's a sign that your body's responding. So that lymph node swelling is a little bit more common in older kids we've seen and adults. But your small child might develop it, too. So it's important to be aware of that. And I would say these symptoms show up one to three days kind of after they've gotten their shot. So if it's weeks and weeks later, I would advise parents to see their pediatrician.
And then the other question, you know, about Tylenol and ibuprofen - and there's a lot of controversy about this. I don't think in the scientific world we really know if you give Tylenol and ibuprofen before you give the vaccine, if that will actually lessen your body's response to the vaccine. So I would say to wait until your child develops any symptoms. So if they have fever or if they're not feeling well, then go ahead and give the Tylenol and ibuprofen. But let the vaccine do what it does best before you give those medicines.
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CHANG: That was NPR health correspondent Rob Stein and Dr. Nia Heard-Garris.
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CHANG: It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. I'm Ailsa Chang.
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