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Opinion Covid vaccine uptake for the youngest children is shockingly low

(Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

A month into the campaign to get the youngest children vaccinated against the coronavirus, it’s clear that a lot of parents still have questions. Only 2.8 percent of children under age 5 have received their shots.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, which does regular surveys about covid-19 and vaccination, found that the number of parents who said they would definitely not immunize their young children actually rose from 27 percent in April to 43 percent in July.

My 4-year-old daughter and 9-month-old son are among the 2.8 percent. The case for vaccinating very young children against the coronavirus might be different now than it was at the beginning of 2021, given that the virus has mutated to be more infectious but less virulent. But even if mRNA vaccines no longer seem like a magic bullet for preventing disease, getting them still made sense for my family. And I hope, with time to consider, many other families will come to the same conclusion.

Like a lot of parents, I’m angry and frustrated that the vaccine approval process for the youngest children took so long. It has been deflating to walk into our appointments knowing that our kids are getting injected with shots targeted to a strain of the virus that has been definitively outcompeted. But even if vaccination won’t keep my children from contracting the virus, protection that makes the illness less severe is worth a lot to me.

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I was reminded just how worth it a few weeks ago, when my daughter brought home her latest cold from nursery school and promptly shared it with her little brother. My husband and I did what we could. We gave them Tylenol so their coughs would hurt less and their occasional fevers would go down. We aspirated their noses. We let them play in the bath so the hot water and steam could loosen up the gunk in their heads and chests. And we snuggled them when they were disconsolate in the night.

There were limits to the comfort we could offer; our kids are too young for most of the medicines that directly target coughs and congestion. But if coronavirus vaccines for my children mean the difference between nursing them through mild cold symptoms and impotently rocking a sobbing baby at midnight, I’ll take the shot every time.

And frankly, vaccinating my daughter protected her as much from bureaucracy as from illness. Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve gotten better at self-administering coronavirus tests, but she hasn’t gotten any fonder of having her nose swabbed. Once she’s fully vaccinated, if someone in her preschool class tests positive, we won’t have to test her five days in a row for her to stay in class.

It’s better for her and for us to test her and send her to school rather than keep her in quarantine every time one of her friends or teachers tests positive. But we decided it was even better to subject her to three jabs in the arm than to an endless round of sticks up her nose.

That would have been true even if she’d experienced some discomfort or fever after her vaccines. I hate to see my children hurt and frightened after a shot, even for a moment — though not as much as I’ve hated the constant fear of losing child care or the nightmare of seeing one of my kids suffer through serious covid illness (perhaps unlikely but still possible). And so far, our kids have taken their shots and gotten right on with their wild, wonderful lives.

I know our reasoning won’t address everyone’s concerns. Perhaps time will make mRNA vaccines feel less novel and provide a body of evidence that convinces concerned parents that serious side effects are exceptionally rare. Certainly, both private companies and public agencies should work to make sure children of all ages have access to omicron-specific vaccines. If families know that their children will be protected from infection, not just from symptoms, the case for getting the shots becomes even stronger.

In the meantime, public health officials should make sure logistics aren’t keeping kids from getting vaccinated.

I doubt it’s a coincidence that D.C. has the highest rate of coronavirus vaccination among young children. The District set up covid centers offering the shots (as well as tests and masks) in every city ward and keeps them open late and on weekend days. If parents can’t afford to miss work, they can take their kids to be vaccinated on a day off. That approach should be a model for every town and city that can afford it.

Not every family will have the flexibility my husband and I had, or easy access to vaccines and pediatricians who could answer our questions. Not everyone has the same priorities, risk tolerance or concerns. But I think most parents would do pretty much anything to allow their children to move more freely and safely through the world. That’s what vaccinating our kids meant for us.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: For people under 50, second booster doses are on hold while the Biden administration works to roll out shots specifically targeting the omicron subvariants this fall. Immunizations for children under 5 became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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