Dr. Peter Barkett
Being a parent is a joy and a responsibility. Sometimes I struggle with decisions about how to raise my children, and especially how to keep them safe. These issues have been particularly difficult during a global pandemic.
For almost two years, parents have struggled with how to balance social distancing and masking with the need for children to socialize and have a normal, happy and healthy childhood. We parents have been incredibly resilient in adapting and navigating how we best protect our children.
Now we have a little more help. The Food and Drug Administration has approved emergency use of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 5 to 11 years, and the vaccines are available free of charge from a clinic, pharmacy or provider near you.
For the first time since the pandemic began, we have the opportunity to protect these children with a vaccine. Administered under the most intensive surveillance in American history, studies have shown that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective for adults and children aged 12 and older. Now, after thorough research, studies show that the Pfizer vaccine is also safe and effective for children aged 5 and older.
Kitsap parents must now make a decision to protect their children by getting them vaccinated.
When it comes to new trends, I would not consider myself an early adopter, but my wife and I have already reported our own son for his shot. Here’s why we’re happy with the decision:
COVID infection and transmission is up for school-age children
This fall, most school-age children went back to the classroom in person. I think that’s great. Personal schooling is an important way to learn the essentials like reading, math and how to interact well with others. However, it also has challenges. Even with masking and distancing, there has been increased COVID transmission among school-age children. Compared to the summer, the infection has more than doubled in this age group. Fortunately, most children do not become seriously ill.
But here’s the decision factor: Some children get very seriously ill. Some children recover well, but transfer COVID-19 to other family members who may be more vulnerable to complications, such as grandparents. Some people will suffer from lasting symptoms of COVID-19 for weeks or months with “long distance” COVID. (This requires more research; we still do not know how significant “long-distance” symptoms are in children, but a recent report showed that 14% of 11- to 17-year-olds had symptoms months later.)
My goal as a parent is to make the chances of any of these consequences as small as reasonably possible.
Billions of people have already received the COVID-19 vaccine
I took my first dose back in December 2020 and have not had any problems, but as a doctor I know I can not assess the risks based on only one person’s experience. Worldwide, 4 billion people have taken the vaccine. In Kitsap County alone, more than 179,400 people 12 years of age and older, about 66% of the Kitsap population, have received at least one dose.
We know that many people have wanted to “wait a while” before having their children, or even vaccinated to see if there are long-term effects.
The overwhelming number of those vaccinated have not had any serious side effects. The history of vaccines tells us that serious side effects, if they occur, usually occur within the first two months after vaccination. These data also support the original studies submitted to the FDA. Although there have been some cases of serious side effects since Americans started getting the vaccine almost a year ago, they have been very rare.
There have been rare cases of myocarditis, called myocarditis, reported after vaccination for COVID-19 in other age groups. There have been no reports in the 5- to 11-year-old age group, but FDA researchers note that the clinical trial for 5- to 11-year-olds was not large enough to detect extremely low incidences of myocarditis. A total of 877 cases of vaccine-induced myocarditis have been reported in patients over 11 years of age. Most of these cases have occurred in adolescents and young adults. The risk is extremely low given that more than 100 million vaccine doses have been administered in this age group. The alternative of not being vaccinated is also not without risk, as COVID-19 infection in itself can cause myocarditis.
The vaccinated have received a strong layer of protection against serious illness from COVID-19 infection. In the past month in Kitsap County, the number of COVID-19 infections was 4.3 times higher for unvaccinated people than among fully vaccinated. Even when vaccinated patients later test positive for COVID, they remove the infection more quickly and are highly unlikely to end up in the hospital or intensive care unit.
A reduced dose formulated for the age group
My friends who are pediatricians have a saying: Children are not just little adults. We can not assume that they will respond in exactly the same way as adults do to the same treatment. This is why the dose of COVID-19 vaccine studied in 5- to 11-year-olds was significantly reduced to one-third of the adult dose to prioritize safety, tolerance, and immune response. Then it was examined on more than 3,100 children.
When it comes to vaccines, we expect to see any side effects shortly after administration, but the study was continued for six months to ensure we understood any delayed effects. The study found that children get protective antibodies at the same rate as adults, and the results show comparatively impressive safety recordings. The vaccine was found to be 90.7% effective in preventing COVID-19 in children aged 5 to 11. Study data also show that the vaccine reduces the risk of symptomatic COVID-19 in children if they become infected.
Protects children who are too young to be shot
Eventually, we will have studies of COVID-19 vaccines in children under 5 years of age, but we do not have results yet. Meanwhile, one of the biggest risk factors for children who are too young to get the vaccine is the other people at home. My wife and I have been vaccinated, in part to protect our children. Now is the time for our vaccinated child to be vaccinated and help protect his younger siblings.
We all want the best for our children, but sometimes it’s hard to know what it is. As a parent, I make decisions every day that affect the well-being of my children. Some are small, e.g. whether I should sign them up for football or swimming. Some are easy as if I have to give them candy or vegetables for their lunch. Whether or not I should get my son vaccinated for COVID-19 was certainly a big decision, but it was not a difficult decision. One benefit of being a health nurse has been the familiarity of assessing medical evidence, and I am convinced that the evidence in this case is clear. COVID-19 vaccination for 5- to 11-year-olds is safe and effective.
Peter Barkett, MD, practices internal medicine at Kaiser Permanente Silverdale. He lives in Bremerton.
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