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Health, Science and Environment

Pediatricians prepare for COVID-19 vaccine rollout for children

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

As the number of Americans who are vaccinated against COVID-19 continues to rise, one of the big questions many people still have is, what about kids? When can they get vaccinated? For many who are parents, few questions are more urgent. None of the COVID vaccines are authorized for use in small children yet. And that could be about to change. Last week, the White House announced its plan to roll out Pfizer's COVID-19 shots for kids aged 5 to 11 and fast, just as soon as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control each give a green light.

The Biden administration says it's bought enough doses for all 28 million children in that age group, yet that doesn't guarantee they'll all get the vaccine. How are doctors preparing for this major new moment? We wanted to learn more, so we reached out to pediatrician Noreen Womack at St. Luke's Children's in Eagle, Idaho. Dr. Womack, welcome.

NOREEN WOMACK: Thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: We've just caught up with you after you had a pretty full day of appointments with children and their parents. What are you seeing out there?

WOMACK: Well, this winter versus last winter, we're seeing a little bit of everything again - croup, RSV, which is respiratory syncytial virus, not any influenza yet, and, of course, COVID.

FOLKENFLIK: So let's talk about that. Idaho lags in vaccination rates. Just slightly more than half of adults are fully vaccinated, according to figures from the state government. Why are those rates so low?

WOMACK: That's a very good question. I think that there's still a lot of uncertainty in a lot of people. You know, was this too fast? Is this going to cause infertility? Despite data to the contrary, there are still lots of hesitancy. And unfortunately, not just hesitancy - on some people's part, it's just frank - what I would call willful ignorance.

FOLKENFLIK: Why do you think that is?

WOMACK: Yeah, I'm not really sure. They - when you ask them, they cite freedom. They just want to be able to do the things that they want to do. I see a lot of, it's my body. You can't tell me what to do. And I even saw that on a sign. Somebody put that sign on their young kindergarten student not too far from where I work.

FOLKENFLIK: There was a recent poll by CBS News that found about 37% of parents with children between the ages of 5 and 11 would clearly get their kids vaccinated. Thirty-five percent said no. And 26% said maybe. And those numbers seem to roughly align with whether or not the parents themselves are vaccinated. What are you personally hearing from parents?

WOMACK: I think parents want to do the right thing. I think there is so much misinformation out there that, I think, for them, they think the safest thing to do is nothing, right? So we'll just wait and see. Is there going to be more data? You know, maybe in a year they'll know more. So I think that's part of the hesitancy on parents' part. And, of course, it's their children. So they want to be extra careful and make sure that, you know, it's the right thing to do.

FOLKENFLIK: I mean, it sounds as though, from a little bit of what you're talking about, that it can get contentious in there - in the examination rooms.

WOMACK: Yes. You know, it's been - thankfully, people overall are cordial, especially on a one-to-one basis. Where I've seen a lot of contention and just, you know, raising of voices is actually at the school districts and the rural school boards. There's been a lot of fighting and anger. There have been three school board members that have resigned up in northern Idaho. They had to cancel a board - school board meeting because it wasn't safe.

There is at least one member that I know of that has a police escort to go to and from her school board meetings. She has to park far away and then get walked by police because she's worried about violence. But in my day-to-day life, it does not look like that. Thank goodness.

FOLKENFLIK: So give us a feel for what it looks like from your perspective. You're in the room with parents of a kid. They're thinking about this stuff. Vaccines are a political flashpoint. There's rancor about even wearing masks. How do you cut through the anger or the anxiety?

WOMACK: It's very difficult unless you already have a relationship with the family. And I have to say, I actually work mainly in the schools. I work in a couple of Title I schools. So I do school-based clinics.

And in the school district where I work, you know, there is no mask mandate. And so when you're talking about me being in a room with the family, a lot of times, you know, I'm wearing a mask, and they aren't. And that kind of tells me a lot of what I need to know there.

I do find, again, on a one-to-one basis, especially if you have a relationship with them, you've known them for some years, you can have those conversations. And that's why I think it's going to be a good idea. And the national American Academy of Pediatrics did say that, you know, they want the pediatric COVID vaccine to go to pediatric clinics, which is smart because who knows better than a pediatrician how to counsel on vaccines? You know, we - that's our bread and butter.

I'm not saying it's easy. But we certainly have a lot of practice at it. And so, you know, we can have those open conversations. And I think that's going to be really helpful in hopefully increasing vaccination among children.

FOLKENFLIK: We do now have the potential, the likelihood of a vaccine for these young children ages 5 to 11. And yet there's this delta variant there. And there's resistance that you've just talked about so eloquently. Are you worried? Are you hopeful? How are you approaching the next phase of this pandemic?

WOMACK: I think all of us pediatricians are thinking about the messaging around vaccines to our families. Some of the things that I'll definitely mention to families who are contemplating getting the COVID vaccine for their children is that I think COVID vaccines have had the most intensive safety monitoring ever in the history of monitoring vaccines, that there have been tens and thousands of patients being studied from six months of age and up, and that everything shows that the vaccines are safe and effective. And let's not forget that we know that COVID-19 is not good for kids. Even if they don't get as sick, you know, more and more kids in Idaho are losing their parent or their uncle or their grandparent. I think all of us will be bringing that up as well.

FOLKENFLIK: We've been hearing the voice of Dr. Noreen Womack. She's a pediatrician at St. Luke's in Eagle, Idaho. Dr. Womack, my thanks.

WOMACK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.