COVID-19 vaccine eligibility has opened up to Americans over the age of 16 in many parts of the country, but clinical trials are ongoing to determine how safe and effective these vaccines are for younger children.
Pfizer just applied for an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for its COVID-19 vaccine for kids between the ages of 12 and 15. Moderna is testing its vaccine on children between the ages of 6 months and 12 years, and Johnson & Johnson is testing its vaccine in 12- to 17-year-olds (though it was announced Tuesday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration recommended pausing the use of Johnson & Johnson's single-use COVID-19 vaccine to investigate reports of rare but potentially dangerous blood clots).
Data collected so far seems promising — Pfizer shared that its vaccine is 100 percent effective at preventing COVID-19 in 12- to 15-year-olds — but a new Yahoo and YouGov poll finds that many parents are still hesitant to have their children vaccinated against the virus.
According to the survey of 1,606 U.S. adults, which was conducted from March 22 to 25, just 39 percent of parents say they will have their children vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as they’re eligible. Nearly the same amount — 37 percent — say they won’t have their children vaccinated against the virus, and 24 percent say they’re unsure.
There were clear divides across age, race, political affiliation and education level.
Only 27 percent of younger parents — that is, those who are 18 to 29 — said they will get their children vaccinated against COVID-19, while 54 percent of parents between the ages of 45 and 54 plan to vaccinate their children.
Nearly 47 percent of Hispanic families plan to vaccinate their children, followed by 39 percent of white parents and 31 percent of Black parents.
The gap is the widest between political affiliations: 61 percent of Democrats plan to vaccinate their children, while just 36 percent of Republicans say the same. Independents were the least likely to say they’ll vaccinate their children against COVID-19 — just 25 percent plan to sign up when their kids are eligible.
Money was also a big determinant — willingness to vaccinate children increased with a family’s annual income. Just 29 percent of families who make $50,000 or less plan to vaccinate their children against COVID-19, compared to 63 percent of families who make $100,000 or more.
There is a lot of vaccine hesitancy, but experts say they hope — and expect — that will change. “This reflects what we saw when we began to vaccinate adults,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “We have a lot of skepticism and hesitancy.”
But, Schaffner says, “Once vaccination programs begin, people see their neighbors’ children being vaccinated, people get their questions answered and are reassured that the vaccines are safe, many of those skeptical parents will change their minds.”
Dr. Lawrence C. Kleinman, chief of the division of population health, quality and implementation science at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, agrees. “I would expect those numbers to change toward more people getting the vaccine once there are data and federal authorizations,” he tells Yahoo Life. “We saw that with the adult vaccines. People deal with hypotheticals differently than when situations actually present themselves.”
Kleinman says that COVID-19’s risk to children has been “falsely downplayed,” which may have led to more parents not worrying as much about how the virus can affect their kids.
“I just came off of clinical service, and we have had children in the ICU due to COVID-19,” Dr. John Schreiber, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Connecticut Children’s, tells Yahoo Life. “This virus is very strange and unpredictable.” While the majority of children are OK after having COVID-19, “a small number are getting very sick,” Schreiber says. “I don’t want children to get this,” he says. “We’ve been lured into this idea that young people don’t get sick, but some do.” He’s also seen children with long-haul COVID-19 who struggle with fatigue, a loss of taste and smell, and generally feeling unwell. “The virus is unpredictable and may have long-lasting effects on young people,” he says.
Doctors acknowledge, though, that many parents are just trying to make what they think is the right decision for their children. “I’m a parent, and parents always want to do what’s best for their kids,” Schreiber says.
Kleinman agrees. “I can appreciate that folks are reluctant to give their children any kind of medication or substance that has not been proven over the long term,” he says. “While I’m waiting to see the data, authorization will require that apparent benefits are much more than the apparent risks and, if that were to happen, I will not hesitate to immunize my 4-year-old daughter.”
Divides in attitudes toward the vaccine based on race, political affiliation and income are “exactly what we’re seeing in vaccine hesitancy in adults,” Schaffner says.
Black communities have a “historical reason to be suspicious of medical advances,” Kleinman says, pointing to examples like the Tuskegee study, in which Black men with syphilis were deliberately not treated for their disease, despite being told they were, and monitored to see what would happen. “The community has been historically abused by the medical community.”
“The memory is still there,” Schreiber says. But, he points out, COVID-19 is “disproportionately impacting minority communities,” making it “very important” that they be vaccinated against COVID-19. Data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month showed that Black, American Indian or Alaska Native and Latinx people are up to 3.1 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and up to 2.4 times more likely to die of the virus.
The political divide may simply be due to messaging from both parties, Dr. Schaffner says. Republican politicians have been more likely to refuse to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and have been less likely to see the virus as a threat — and Democrats have often done the opposite.
As for why older parents are more likely to vaccinate their children, Schaffner says it may be a matter of experience. “As you get older, you get smarter,” he jokes. Perceived risk is important too, Schaffner says: “The younger you are, the less risk you feel the virus poses.”
Schaffner urges people to respect one another’s decisions around the vaccine, but he says it’s important to have conversations about vaccine safety. “Many children have died and have had to be admitted to the hospital,” he says. “There’s also the problem of long COVID — even if you get mild disease, you can have lingering symptoms that last for months.” Vaccinating children will also make schools and day cares safer, he says.
There’s also this to consider, per Kleinman: “Scientific panels to authorize the vaccine are more cautious when it comes to children.”
Schreiber urges doctors to have candid, nonjudgmental conversations with families about the vaccines. “I talk to families about this every day,” he says. “When you tune out Facebook and social media, and have an honest conversation about the risks and benefits, nine times out of 10, families will move ahead and choose vaccination.”
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