“It’s nice that 5-to-11-year-olds have this option available to them,” Diana Wakim, a 31-year-old in Columbus, Ohio, and mother of a 2-year-old boy, said about the coronavirus vaccine. “But we’re just sort of sitting here and twiddling our thumbs and thinking, ‘When are we going to be protected? When can we keep our son safe and ourselves safe?’ ”
Health authorities have said a vaccine for the youngest Americans is likely be available next year. Sean O’Leary, vice chair of the Committee on Infectious Diseases for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the delta variant is so contagious that “pretty much any age group is at risk of getting it and spreading it, including kids under 5.” Parents must now also contend with the omicron variant. Scientists are worried that mutations could make omicron more transmissible, but there is too little research so far to draw any conclusions.
Since the start of the pandemic, more than 6.8 million children in the United States have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. More than 600 of them have died; more than 200 of those were younger than 5.
“For those families, it’s the most devastating loss they can imagine,” said David Kimberlin, co-director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “I do think there is a recognition that children are less likely to die, but they can still die. And in addition to that, there is increasing recognition that children … can have long-term covid effects.”
Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are conducting clinical trials for children as young as 6 months. Pfizer is testing a 3-microgram dose, or one-tenth of its adult dose, in children between 6 months and 5 years of age.
Health experts say that assuming a vaccines is shown to be safe and produces an immune response in the youngest cohort that is comparable the response in older children, adolescents and young adults, and assuming that one is authorized for emergency use, it could be available for children ages 6 months through 4 years sometime in early 2022.
For Ashley Carlson, it cannot come fast enough.
The 31-year-old Seattle mother just got her 5-year-old son vaccinated and is anxious to get the vaccine for her 3-year-old daughter.
Carlson said her son has autism and epilepsy and her daughter is in the process of getting an autism diagnosis. Because her children have sensory processing difficulties, she said, it is extremely hard to get them to wear masks, leaving them vulnerable and at higher risk for exposure to the coronavirus.
“I’m very relieved to get my son vaccinated,” she said. “We’ve had almost three months of school this year, and he’s maybe gone to one, just because anytime anybody in his class gets a runny nose, everybody has to quarantine.”
Carlson, who also has a 4-month-old, recently took maternity leave from her job in operations for a grocery chain, in which she works 50 to 60 hours per week, she said. She said her aunt watches her children, but if one of them were to contract the virus, she said she would not want to expose her aunt and would want to care for the children herself.
But the thought of having to take additional time off makes her nervous, she said.
Wakim empathizes. She will be taking leave in April, when her second child is due.
“I’m fortunate that I have a flexible work environment. But also, man, people are understanding only up to a point,” Wakim said. She said she also worries about potential long-term consequences of covid-19 and about her son’s contributing to the spread. She plans to get him vaccinated if his pediatrician recommends it.
Ashley Beringer, 31, of Tonawanda, N.Y., said she is “extremely nervous” that her 4-month-old or 3-year-old twins could become severely ill.
Beringer said her twins were born prematurely and have had respiratory difficulties in the past. She said she and her husband were so anxious last year that they pulled the twins out of day care and have kept them at home since.
Getting her children immunized would give her more peace of mind, she said.
Covid-19 aside, pediatricians have seen a wave of childhood illnesses, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), after a mild sick season last year, probably due to coronavirus mitigation practices such as social distancing and masking. The return of other illnesses places an extra burden on families that are already dealing with issues related to covid-19.
Erica Cooper said her 4-year-old grandson has been consistently sick with various infections since he started day care over the summer. Cooper, 50, of Louisville, said her daughter is not able to take time off from work, so when the boy is sick — recently with RSV — Cooper stays home from her job to help.
“I really worry, because he brings a lot of stuff home,” she said in a phone interview while sitting at the pediatrician’s office with her sick grandson.
In addition, Cooper said, she has had to keep her grandson at home at least six times since the summer when other children at the day care have been sick with covid-19, requiring the facility to close and sanitize the classrooms.
Cooper said she was relieved when her 8-year-old granddaughter recently got vaccinated, “but I still feel that we’re not totally out of the zone yet because we still have the one who has to go to day care. So we are still going to be exposed.”
Kimberlin said that until there is a coronavirus vaccine for children younger than 5, protecting them is vital.
For instance, he said, it is important that parents get their children inoculated against vaccine-preventable diseases — influenza, measles, mumps, rubella, even pneumonia.
As for the coronavirus vaccine, he said, the main measure people can take to protect children younger than 5 “is to vaccinate as many people around them as possible and to cocoon them, if you will, to put them in that bubble of protection when they’re not yet able to be vaccinated themselves.”