Many parents rushed to get their children inoculated in May after regulators widened use of Pfizer Inc.’s COVID-19 shot to children as young as age 12. Yet vaccinations have flagged since. Other parents have held off because of concerns about the shot’s speedy development and a rare side effect, an inflammatory heart condition called myocarditis. They are struggling with how to weigh these risks against research indicating that COVID-19 itself isn’t a significant risk for children.
Some of the reluctant parents are vaccinated themselves, a new challenge for public-health officials trying to overcome more general hesitancy about vaccines, as they race against the Delta variant and prepare for the resumption of schools.
"I’m just going to hold off," said Jackie Gordon, of O’Fallon, Ill., who hasn’t gotten her 16-year-old son vaccinated, though she and her 18-year-old daughter have taken the shots.
Giving her pause, she said, was uncertainty whether the shot is safe for children like her son with extreme allergies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccines for people with severe allergies so long as they aren’t related to shots or injectable medications.
The hesitancy is hurting a U.S. vaccination campaign struggling to inoculate enough people to develop the widespread immunity that will limit the spread of Delta and stymie the emergence of new variants.
The vaccine from Pfizer and partner BioNTech SE is authorized for children as young as 12 years. Pfizer has said it expects to seek authorization in 5-to-12-year-olds in September.
Vaccinating children is crucial, though their cases tend to be mild, because they can spread the virus without showing symptoms of infection, according to doctors and epidemiologists. High vaccination rates among youths, health experts say, would also help schools stay open and permit parents to return to work.
"The only way out of this crisis is to stop giving this virus bodies to infect and opportunities to mutate. The risks that come with vaccination are just drops in the ocean compared to the benefits both on the individual and systemic level," said Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, who has treated severe COVID-19 cases.
Children contracting COVID-19, Dr. Faust said, would be much more likely to go to the hospital than those who had vaccine-related complications. And hospitalizations of adolescents who are naturally infected can often be longer and more complicated than those who end up in the hospital after vaccinations, though both outcomes are generally rare, he added.