I believe the initial effort should focus on getting shots to the ready, willing and eager, and then enlisting them as ambassadors. These are families who have been desperate for shots. In advance of the CDC’s green light, Texas Children’s Hospital reported booking 120 appointments per minute starting last Friday. By Tuesday morning, more than 28,000 children were signed up.
Getting this initial group vaccinated will itself have a substantial effect: Twenty-seven percent of 28 million newly eligible children is nearly 8 million grade school students who will be protected in time for Christmas. These kids and their parents can help pediatricians, school officials and local health departments explain to others the benefits of vaccination.
Importantly, this effort should demonstrate what families are able to do once they are fully vaccinated. The media should help tell their stories: The child with autoimmune disease who had to be home-schooled and is now able to see his friends. The family that hasn’t been able to travel abroad to visit elderly grandparents but can now reunite. The kid who was pulled out of gymnastics and soccer who can now resume the extracurricular activities she loves.
When vaccines were first made available for adults, there was criticism that “vaccine selfies” highlighted unequal access. People were shamed for returning to pre-pandemic activities, when this was their main motivator for choosing vaccination.
This was a mistake. We need early adopters to proudly demonstrate that vaccines are safe, effective and key to returning to their lives. Normalizing vaccination and explaining what kids can now do once inoculated are essential to persuading the wait-and-see group to get off the fence.
Second, don’t blame hesitancy when access is the barrier.
For millions of adults who delayed vaccination, their reason wasn’t that they objected to the vaccine, but rather that they couldn’t take time off from work or lacked transportation or child care. We have seen that this group is amenable to vaccines if they’re brought to them, at their place of work or worship, for example.
The Biden administration and many localities are establishing plans for school-based vaccine clinics, mobile outreach and widespread distribution to pediatricians’ offices. These efforts will be essential to reach those who are willing so long as vaccination is the easy and convenient choice.
Third, boldly declare that vaccines will replace masking.
Vaccines are a highly effective layer of protection that can take the place of other mitigation measures. School officials should make clear that if an entire class is vaccinated, they no longer need to mask around one another. A sports team made up of fully vaccinated members should be able to practice and socialize without restrictions.
Such policies would add a much-needed incentive for vaccination, especially for those families who aren’t convinced by the data that covid-19 poses a major threat to children. Schools are under increasing pressure to implement an off-ramp for mask mandates. Now is the time to tie the end of masking to vaccination.
There will be some detractors who argue that the vaccine is not 100 percent protective, so is it really safe to do away with masks? Here is where we cannot, once again, let the perfect be the enemy of the good. From the beginning, the message should have been that vaccination is the ticket out of pandemic restrictions. Nearly every daily activity will still carry some risk, but that risk will be much lower because of the vaccine. We need to allow vaccinated people to choose their level of risk, which includes, in many settings, the ability to go without a mask.
In early March, I argued that we had a small window of opportunity to make the case for vaccinating adults by tying vaccination to reopening policy. This didn’t happen. Restrictions were lifted anyway; the messaging around vaccination became increasingly muddled; and vaccine uptake plummeted. Let’s not make the same mistake again. Americans should turn our collective attention to protecting our children as we inch, together, toward our new normal.