Pediatricians Urge Vaccinating Children Under Age Five

Eighteen months since health care workers became the first in Chicago to receive the coronavirus vaccine, it is now available to the city’s youngest residents.

Within days of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control approving vaccine courses for children six-months through 4 years old, area hospitals, pediatricians and health care centers are beginning to put those doses in children’s arms.

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Michelle Redd owns Building Block Learning Academy in Englewood, which cares for children as young as 6 weeks old. She says the pandemic has been challenging.

“It’s very difficult to try to maintain cohorts within cohorts, or to ask a two- or three- or four-year-old to wear a mask when they’re simply just being a preschooler and so we’ve been able to come up with creative ways to still be able to teach cognition,” Redd said. “We’ve come up with ways such as taking hula hoops and having them sit in hula hoops. And they think it’s really fun, but it really provides social distancing.” 

Redd said some families, particularly those with children who’ve until now been too young to get vaccinated, have been nervous about having their children in day care.

She’s hopeful they, and their day care providers, will feel more comfortable as infants and toddlers are now eligible to get their shots.

She plans to have conversations with clients about the “healthy choices” available.

“We are on tip toes of anticipation, because, this particular center, it’s in the heart of Englewood in Chicago, which is one of the areas that is under resourced, it’s a marginalized community,” Redd said. “We recognize that when children come to us, they don’t come alone but as a member of a family. That’s our starting point for us as community. And so for us, getting information, sharing that information, to the families will hopefully make them feel comfortable knowing that we are vaccinated and knowing that we are encouraging them to vaccinate their children.”

Doctors say it’s important that young children get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We’re so fortunate that children aren’t as vulnerable as older individuals but we do know that they get COVID, they get the infection SARS-CoV-2. They are able to spread it within a household,” said Dr. Daniel Johnson, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Comer Children’s Hospital, and a leader with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Illinois chapter. 

Johnson said the impact of COVID-19 on young children is similar to the impact of influenza, and pediatricians recommend babies and toddlers get flu shots.

And while less common, tens of thousands of children under age 5 have been in the ICU with COVID-19.

“When they do get sick enough to get hospitalized, it has serious consequences for them. Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of the opportunity to save a life? And that’s really what we’re talking about,” Johnson said. “Yes, we’re talking about 450 children compared to close to a million adults who’ve died from COVID, but who wouldn’t want to save 450 children if we could? And the one thing that we know about this vaccine is that it is very safe for kids.”

Dr. Cameron Webb, who is on the White House COVID-19 Response Team, said thorough reviews by the FDA and CDC made sure the vaccine is safe.

Caregivers have the option of two courses of vaccines, both of which use mini doses compared with the adult versions.

The Pfizer regimen for those six months through age four consists of three doses, each 1/10 of the adult dose; the first two are to be given three weeks apart, with the final dose a minimum of two months after the second dose. 

Moderna’s course is two shots, a quarter the adult dose, given four weeks apart, and is for children aged six-months through five years.

Esperanza Health Centers, a federally-qualified health center that operates a handful of clinics on the city’s Southwest Side, received its initial allotment of vaccines for children Tuesday.

Dr. Mark Minier, Esperanza’s medical director of pediatrics, said nurses and other providers will receive training the next couple of days, so they can be ready to give their youngest patients COVID-19 shots by the week’s end.

Minier said Esperanza held massive pop-up clinics and has so far provided 150,000 vaccines to mostly Latinx residents on the Southwest side.

The temporary clinics have since shut down, but now that a fresh population is eligible to get vaccinated, three- and four-year-olds will be able to get vaccinated at a scaled-back mass clinic at Esperanza’s 47th and California location.

An appointment will be required for the younger infants and toddlers, both because they require different equipment (babies likely will get the shot lying down, rather than sitting up) and because it presents an opportunity.

“(During the pandemic) many kids fell behind on routine childhood immunizations. And we did a lot of work over the past year, year and a half, as things started to open up more to get as many of those kids back in for vaccines that they may have missed,” Minier said. “But we also feel that this is an opportunity if they are coming in for a COVID vaccine, we can check their other vaccines, we can check sort-of developmental things that are going on. This is an opportunity to do some other well-care that maybe was missed during the pandemic.”

Minier said as with much else during the pandemic, things can rapidly change, so the health center is prepared to adjust that plan if needed.

Some parents are anxiously waiting to get their newly eligible children the vaccine as soon as possible.

But Minier fears that some families may assume that as life becomes more like it was pre-pandemic, that it means COVID-19 is behind us.

“So my fear is that people will decide not to vaccinate because they think it’s no longer a public health crisis and that’s a message we really do want to get out to people,” Minier said. “While things are better, rates are lower, hospitalizations are lower, that is much to do because of the vaccination effort that has happened already to adults and older children. So we want to continue doing as much as we can to prevent other surges from coming in the future.”

Minier said if parents have questions, they should call a doctor.

As a federally qualified health center, Esperanza offers care to anyone, regardless of insurance or ability to pay.

The city of Chicago is also planning a series of free vaccine clinics.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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