More than 18,000 Maryland parents lined up to get their children inoculated against COVID-19 in the first few days since those ages 5 to 11 became eligible for a shot of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
The number represents a fraction of the 515,000 kids in the age range in the state, but it shows the eagerness of some families to get their elementary school-age members the first of two needed shots after federal regulators authorized the vaccine for the age group last week.
Local health departments, pharmacies and doctor’s offices scrambled to launch clinics beginning Friday and through the weekend. Many websites locked up for hours as people sought to book appointments, a reprise of the early days of the vaccine campaign in Maryland.
Gina Calia-Lotz was among those who wanted an appointment for her son as soon as she could get one, after waiting nearly a year after the first doses began rolling out to adults and months after her older two sons were vaccinated.
She took 9-year-old Michael for a shot Monday at a clinic at White Marsh Mall.
It will mean he can return to in-person school and other more normal activities, said Calia-Lotz, a community college librarian who lives in Towson.
“I very much want to get him back and I’ve been waiting for him to be eligible,” she said. “That’s a big motivating factor.”
But, she said, another big factor was the pandemic itself. She wanted to “contribute to the solution by getting as many people vaccinated as possible.”
The ultimate number of parents who seek the two-dose vaccine for their children remains to be seen. Vaccinations of the next older group of kids, those ages 12 to 16, lag adults in Maryland and around the country.
However, surveys show that Maryland parents may be more willing than those nationally. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found less than a third nationally wanted the vaccine right away and another third never want it.
Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said parents may believe COVID-19 isn’t serious in children, so there is no rush. But he said the disease can be severe, and also new data shows that children can pass the more contagious delta variant of the virus to other family members even if they are fully vaccinated.
That’s a threat to more vulnerable family members and perpetuates the pandemic, he said.
Benjamin said trials showed the vaccine was safe and highly effective in children with few side effects, including some reported cases of myocarditis or pericarditis, or heart inflammation. Cases in older children were very rare and largely mild and quick to resolve.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is continuing to monitor for side effects, including myocarditis, as more of the nation’s 28 million kids ages 5 to 11 are vaccinated.
“Kids, when they get infected, tend to have milder cases overall. But there is an unacceptable risk of death and severe injury if they get the disease,” he said. “Getting vaccinated is the safest state to be in, and not getting vaccinated is a bigger risk overall.”
A concern now also is the upcoming holidays, when families travel and could exacerbate the pandemic.
“It means being able to live a much more normal existence,” Benjamin said. “There’s evidence that it’s going away, but it ain’t gone yet, and we don’t know whether it will be back next year with a vengeance or after the holidays.”
So far, at least 1.9 million children ages 5 to 11 have been infected with COVID-19 and about 8,300 have been hospitalized, with a third of those needing intensive care. Nearly 100 in the age range have died, making it a leading cause of death for that group. In Maryland, four children up to age 9 and eight from 10 to 19 have died from the infection, out of more than 103,000 cases, according to state health department data.
There also isn’t much information yet about which children will get especially sick, said Dr. Susan Lipton, head of infectious diseases at the Herman & Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai in Baltimore.
She said pneumonia is a risk, but doctors know a lot about treating it. A bigger threat for children is multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C, after COVID-19 infections. She said recovery can be long and difficult.
“MIS-C is the one that scares the wits out of us,” Lipton said.
That’s moved a lot of parents to get their children in the first lines for the inoculations, she said. But fear may not work — nor mandates — to move hesitant parents. She suggested a conversation with a child’s doctor.
“We’re not here to fight,” she said. “Tell me what you’re worried about, and I’ll tell you what I know and don’t know.”
And Lipton said the most important question to move the needle: “Definitely ask me what I’m going to do for my own family.”
Others agree that mandates aren’t the way to go with children, at least not initially. So far only California has indicated that it plans to require the vaccine for children in kindergarten through 12th grade, as is done in all 50 states for other vaccines such as measles, polio and chickenpox.
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COVID-19 mandates should wait for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to fully license the vaccine for younger children based on longer-term safety data being accumulated by the CDC, according to an article published Friday in the journal JAMA that was written by experts from Johns Hopkins University and Georgetown University.
“There are large divides in public trust, especially for pediatric COVID-19 vaccines,” they wrote. “Public health officials must build trust, providing reassurance that pediatric COVID-19 vaccines will protect children and their classmates, families, and communities. This will require effective but nuanced vaccine education that encourages parents to voluntarily vaccinate their children.”
To that end, Andy Owen, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health, said the state plans public service announcements featuring pediatricians.
Officials also will continue providing support to local health departments and school systems in their vaccination efforts and work to ensure equitable access in underserved communities, he said.
“Demand for COVID vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds has been strong in Maryland, and the state continues to encourage parents to schedule their eligible children for a vaccination,” Owen said. “Our goal remains getting as many children vaccinated as possible.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Hallie Miller contributed to this article.