For many Maryland parents and guardians, a long, worrisome period of the pandemic is drawing to a hopeful close, as federal regulators have authorized COVID-19 vaccinations for elementary school-aged children.
Maryland localities and pharmacies are receiving about 280,000 initial doses from the federal government, enough for about half of all youngsters ages 5 to 11, and appointments have been booking up quickly across the state. Among the first to roll up her sleeves Thursday was 11-year-old Alexandra Good of Baltimore County, whose experience contracting COVID-19 in February helped convince her mother that kids need to be vaccinated.
“We have been waiting and waiting,” said mom Lisa Shapiro, whose elder daughter, Anne Peyton, 14, also got sick and hasn’t recovered her sense of smell or taste. “I felt like they needed that extra layer of protection.”
While a straightforward decision for Shapiro and others, some parents remain unconvinced about the safety and effectiveness of the newly authorized coronavirus vaccine for kids, despite endorsements from state and federal officials and major institutions such as the American Academy of Pediatrics of its ability to blunt the virus’ impact.
The divided opinions mirror parental attitudes about COVID-19 immunizations across the country, with sentiments generally falling into three groups: those who will get their children vaccinated, those who won’t get their kids vaccinated, and those who are undecided or plan to “wait and see.”
The shots, produced by Pfizer/BioNTech, are made with a third of the 30 microgram dose given to adults and older children, after clinical trial testing revealed that kids could develop robust immunity against the potentially deadly virus with lower amounts of vaccine. Studies found the shots to be over 90% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in those 5 to 11 years old using 10 micrograms, according to safety data from the trials.
That means fewer children contracting the coronavirus and spreading it to their loved ones, and fewer kids admitted to hospitals for their symptoms, said Dr. Kawsar Talaat, associate professor of international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Children stayed relatively safe in the initial waves of the coronavirus pandemic, Talaat said, accounting for relatively little of the virus-induced sickness and death. But as businesses reopened, travel resumed and kids returned to in-person classes, the number of youth infections jumped, she said.
“Most cases are mild, but if you have millions, some of them are going to die,” Talaat said last month during a virtual media briefing hosted by Hopkins. “Those rates have gone up significantly. One way to protect them is getting them vaccinated.”
Even if children don’t develop the most severe symptoms, they can face long roads to recovery, miss classroom time and lose out on social experiences, Talaat added.
“Their lives can go back to something better than being locked up at home, unable to see their friends,” she said. “This will keep them safe and keep our communities safe, too.”
It comes as a relief for some kids, too, after 20 months when it seemed like everyday childhood was on hold.
Brothers Ryan, 8, and Andrew Johnston, 10, celebrated Friday after getting shots at Baltimore County clinic set up in a former Sears at White Marsh Mall. Their younger sister, Caroline, 4, looked on.
“I have a COVID vaccine!” Ryan cheered with fist pumps after the needle went in.
Several Baltimore-area parents said they hoped the vaccine would mitigate the school closures and quarantine periods brought on by outbreaks of infection, a particular conundrum for parents who work outside of the home and don’t have ready access to child care.
Parris Webb, who plans to book an appointment soon for his 8-year-old son, Caleb, said the school year induced anxiety for the family about the third grader’s well-being. If enough children get inoculated, Webb said, it could prevent more students from falling behind.
But the primary reason for getting the shot is Caleb’s health, said Webb, who noted he waited a few months until he felt comfortable receiving his own COVID-19 vaccine.
“I wish,” Caleb said Wednesday, “they had a vaccine for kids so that we didn’t all have to wear masks and can see our actual faces.”
Parents who have not been immunized are more likely to express major concerns about their children getting inoculated, according to a recent study by researchers at Harvard, Northeastern, Northwestern and Rutgers universities, as well as the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Medical School.
Immunized and nonimmunized parents alike expressed concerns about the vaccine’s newness, how thoroughly it has been tested, its effectiveness, and the potential for immediate and long-term side effects. But the concerns were much more pronounced among unvaccinated parents, according to the study, with long-term health effects the most pressing fear.
That’s one reason Ashley Zielezinski, 28, of Canton, said she won’t get herself or her son, 7-year-old Wyatt, vaccinated against COVID-19.
“I don’t think we know enough about it in the first place,” Zielezinski said of the COVID vaccine, adding they’re careful about masking and hand-washing. “I feel like that’s what our immune system is made for.”
That doesn’t stop Wyatt from inquiring about the immunization, though.
“He’ll ask me questions about this, especially like, ‘When will this all end?’” his mother said.
Along with vaccination status, race and ethnicity, age, educational attainment and geography also factored into parents’ feelings about vaccinating their children, according to researchers from the so-called COVID States Project. They found that parents of all political leanings and demographics had similar concerns. But the feelings tended to be strongest among younger adults, parents without college degrees, people in rural areas and in communities of color.
Part of the resistance can be attributed to general feelings of distrust and skepticism about the health care system and the government, said Fermin Vasquez, who has reservations about scheduling his 6-year-old son, Leonardo, for a vaccine.
While Vasquez has been immunized, he said he isn’t convinced about the vaccine’s safety or effectiveness. He knows friends and family members who experienced symptomatic COVID-19 even after getting vaccinated. Many told him they suffered severe side effects from the shots.
“I’m not going to give it to him,” Vasquez told a reporter in Spanish. “I don’t agree with it.”
In Howard County, Alana Karimi, mom to Sofia, 5, and Gabriel, 6 months, said she, too, doesn’t trust that enough data has been collected.
“Every person who gets the COVID-19 vaccine is a study, therefore I refuse to let my children be statistics all for monetary gain,” Karimi, 32, said.
Side effects, while uncomfortable, are temporary in both kids and adults, said Dr. Jinlene Chan, deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of Health during a Wednesday news conference in Annapolis. She said young children and slightly older kids, who have received larger doses, have performed well in the clinical trials — well enough for her to recommend as a pediatrician and mother that the benefits of the shots outweigh the risks.
Chan said people who have been immunized have been better shielded from severe infection, hospitalizations and deaths, proof that the vaccines are holding up in real-world conditions. Meanwhile, she said, young children who have been ineligible for vaccinations have been getting infected at higher rates. As of mid-2021, kids younger than 10 made up 14% of all cases in Maryland, up from just 6% at the beginning of the year, Chan said.
In all, she added, 700 children 12 or younger have been hospitalized due to COVID-19.
Despite the increased cases and hospitalizations, only four children up to age 9 and eight who were ages 10 to 19 have died from the infection since the state began tallying the metrics in March 2020, according to the state health department’s coronavirus dashboard. Children constitute less than 1% of the more than 700,000 U.S. COVID-19 deaths, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which notes that not all states report numbers.
Marylanders are at an important inflection point, Chan and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said, especially as the weather gets colder and holiday travel begins.
“We’ve gotten to this point by listening to the experts and following the science, and that is what we will continue to do,” Hogan said.
At the same time, he said, parents and families should be the ones to make the choice to get children vaccinated, rather than it being mandated by the federal or state government.
That resonates with Westminster parent Bryan Thompson, who chairs the Concerned Parents of Carroll County group, which advocates against mask mandates, required diversity training and teaching “critical race theory” in schools. Thompson, who is vaccinated, said he will wait before having his children roll their sleeves up.
“Our decision may change as more data is reported by the scientific community,” he said. “We believe ... all parents have the right to choose whether to vaccinate their children based on their own risk assessment and health care guidance. We ask for Carroll County Public Schools and the state of Maryland to respect these rights.”
There will be children’s vaccine clinics in all 24 public school systems in Maryland and the state will also distribute the shots to doctors’ offices, retail partners and local health departments. Officials also plan to run an outreach program and advertising campaign aimed at reaching parents on the fence or opposed. Children’s doctors, recognized as some of the most trusted messengers, will be central to the state’s campaign, officials said Wednesday.
Andy Owen, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health, said the department could not yet provide figures on how many children’s clinic appointments have been booked so far.
Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, encouraged all parents, even those comfortable with getting their kids vaccinated, to speak with their pediatricians beforehand. That way, he said, they’ll have realistic expectations about what the vaccine does and does not do and how to make kids more comfortable if they experience side effects, such as a fever or sore arm.
“The data shows this vaccine is safe and effective in kids ... and that should be real reassuring,” Benjamin said. “As more parents see kids getting vaccinated, the resistance will dramatically reduce.”
Still, many parents said they don’t need to wait to speak with professionals.
Sarah Lua of Manchester, said she signed up her 7-year-old son, Carter, as soon as appointments became available on the Carroll County Health Department’s website.
Carter may have an autoimmune condition that would increase his risk of contracting severe COVID-19, she said, and she has been home schooling him this year. That comes at a cost to his social development, Lua said. On Halloween, his first time around his friends this year without a mask, he was so overcome with happiness that he “didn’t know how to act,” she said.
She, too, has an autoimmune condition, and didn’t want to risk him getting infected outside the home or spreading it to others with similarly limited immunity.
“It’s hard,” she said. “But we got to keep people safe.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Meredith Cohn, Christine Condon, Alex Mann and Bryn Stole and photographer Ulysses Muñoz, as well as Baltimore Sun Media reporters Donovan Conaway, Cameron Goodnight, Kristen Griffith and Allana Haynes contributed to this article.