As the WHO urges the west to impose a moratorium on COVID "booster shots", the quiet campaign to vaccinate teenagers in children is progressing without interruption or much attention. But as the media increasingly moves on from trying to scare the millions of adults in the US who refuse to get the vaccine, the campaign to push to scare parents into vaccinating their kids is ready to begin.
Case in point: Bloomberg published a lengthy report on Wednesday quoting a smattering of "experts" who testified about the importance of vaccinating children for COVID, just like the US does for polio and measles. While dozens of countries have seen barely any penetration by vaccines, children - fewer than 400 of whom have died of COVID in the US since the outbreak began - may soon be forced to get the vaccine by school districts.
In the US, more than 4MM children have tested positive for COVID, although the real number is likely much higher because kids are often asymptomatic. At least 44K kids, from newborns to 17-year-olds, have been hospitalized since August, and about 350 have died, according to the CDC. And now that the goalposts for herd immunity have been moved to as high as 90%, getting children vaccinated to "stop the spread" is increasingly imperative.
One scientist argued that even 350 deaths is too many for a disease where there's a vaccine (of course, the real question is will the vaccine substantially lower that rate?)
Peter Marks, the director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, says 350 deaths from Covid might not sound like many, but “when you think about childhood illnesses that are vaccine-preventable, that is a lot.” And as with adults, Covid has taken a disproportionate toll on those from racial and ethnic minorities and those with underlying health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and obesity.
Another doctor said people underestimate the risks associated with COVID in children. Though, to be sure, as we have noted before, "long-haul" COVID is brutal no matter what age the patient.
Guliz Erdem, a pediatric infectious diseases physician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, is frustrated by what’s seemed, at times, to be widespread dismissal of the risk Covid poses to kids. She’s tended to MIS-C patients as young as 2 months old, who appear in the emergency room with swollen hands, bloodshot eyes, and blue lips. She describes the syndrome as a bomb that explodes in the body and fragments the immune system. “At first we didn’t really believe this condition was real,” she says. It was months before the CDC started counting cases, but from May 2020 to July 2021, the agency received more than 4,100 reports of MIS-C, including 37 deaths, with most cases occurring in Black and Hispanic kids and those younger than 14.
Already, more than 30% of minors aged 12 to 17 have been fully vaccinated. Here's how that breaks down to adults and young children, offering up a description that seemed disproportionately harsh, considering the numbers.
Though the story didn't spend much time on obstacles to the vaccine rollout, it did highlight resistance to vaccines among black Americans as one obstacle of the rollout.
Community organizers do sometimes encounter hesitancy. Diane Latiker, founder of Kids Off the Block, an outreach program for low-income children in Chicago, says she often hears Black families cite the infamous experiment in Tuskegee, Ala., in which Black men with syphilis were denied treatment without their knowledge for four decades. “They know about all the wrongdoing that their parents and grandparents have been through,” she says. “So when it comes down to the vaccine, they’re not trusting.” In considering the shot, people felt better when the outreach came from those “who not only look like them, but people who actually live in their community.”
The story featured a couple of anecdotes about teens who were eager to get the vaccine. One said he couldn't wait to give his grandparents a huge.
One afternoon in May, Michael Joseph Smith, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, strides in baseball-patterned socks through a Duke University facility in Durham, N.C., to welcome Cameron O’Hara, a 14-year-old vaccine trial subject. Smith has been acting as co-principal investigator at one of the sites that’s been testing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in kids since last winter. O’Hara and his mother have come to the office following the “unblinding” process—in which he’d learned, to his disappointment, that he’s been getting a placebo—to get his first dose of the real thing. He crosses his sneakers and grips his mom’s hand as the needle goes into his arm.
O’Hara is eager to return to the classroom this fall as a high school freshman. He’s planning to celebrate his second dose with a road trip to the Adirondacks to see his grandparents. “The first thing I’m going to do is give them a hug,” he says, bringing his mother to tears. O’Hara’s parents, both pharmacists, encouraged his enrollment in the trial. He’s more enthusiastic about vaccination than many of his friends, some of whom fear needles, some of whom carry youthful delusions of immortality.
Another student named John who spoke to Bloomberg while waiting in line for his jab said he was determined to do whatever he could to stop another round of COVID from taking hold in what was described as a predominantly Latino community.
For John Osorio Vasquez, the patchwork rollout means he won’t likely be able to forgo his mask in the classroom, as he’d hoped to at his summer job. Durham Public Schools currently require face coverings for students and staff, regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated—an approach the CDC backed in late July. “Many of our families, teachers, and staff feel more secure with universal masking,” says DPS spokesman Chip Sudderth. No vaccine mandate is in the offing, at least for now, which means carrying on with the painstaking process of persuading everyone to get their shots.
But where adults are weary and wary, kids remain hopeful. John’s brother, Diego, already feels freer. His father has long promised to take him to El Salvador. John has been a handful of times, and it’s finally Diego’s turn. The country has recently faced a surge in cases, but with a shield of protection, Diego thinks his odds have improved. He grins. “It’s a good time to get my vaccine.”
But fundamentally, vaccinating children is a bigger priority for emerging countries with already tenuous access to vaccines. In the developing world, where birth rates are higher, young people make up among the largest segments of the population. Globally, minors represent 25% of the 7 billion people on earth.