Jesse Readlynn, a father of two from Rochester, New York, breathed a huge sigh of relief this week. “My children getting coronavirus was one of my biggest fears,” he told VOA.“Finally, this worry and uncertainty I’ve been living with can begin to relax.”
Readlynn’s relief comes after last week’s U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendation that children 5-11 years old be vaccinated with a pediatric version of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. The guidance makes 28 million American children eligible for a vaccine that has proved overwhelmingly effective in slowing the spread of coronavirus.
For many parents like Readlynn, the development is highly welcome news. When his 7-year-old receives his first dose of the vaccine next week, and his 4-year-old receives a version of the vaccine in a clinical study, Readlynn is hopeful life can return closer to what it was in the years before the coronavirus pandemic.
“Playdates, having real birthday parties, eating inside restaurants, going to museums,” he listed as things he’s looking forward to doing once his children are vaccinated.“Visiting family we have to fly to and just exploring the big, wide, exciting world again! It’s going to bring a normalcy to our lives that we haven’t had in two years.”
Uncertainty for some
According to an October survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly three in 10 parents (27%) are eager to get a vaccine for their child, 5-11 years old. A slightly higher number (30%) said they will definitely not get the vaccine for their child, while a full third of respondents said they will wait a while to see how the vaccine is working.
“It’s honestly the most difficult decision I’ve had to make for my child,” said Kerri Paino of Hauppauge, New York, mother of a 7-year-old now eligible for the vaccine and a 4-year-old who is not.
Like so many parents over the last two years, Paino said she and her husband, both vaccinated, have had to make seemingly constant and uncomfortable decisions about what is and isn’t safe for their unvaccinated children. Everything from an afternoon trip to the mall to a full family vacation caused uncertainty and second-guessing.
“We took a trip to Mexico this summer and we had to take a COVID test to get back home,” Paino said. “My 7-year-old daughter wailed so loud in the lobby, it was embarrassing. But I also feel bad because this all must be so uncomfortable and strange for her. I just want it to be over.”
Still, Paino said she is worried about the long-term effects of the vaccine and isn’t ready for her daughter to get hers yet.
“We’re still on the fence,” she said. “I don’t want to make a decision that could negatively affect her future without her being able to make a conscious choice along with me.”
Other parents trust the safety of the vaccine but are still in no hurry to have their children vaccinated. As the number of coronavirus cases drops throughout the country, many don’t feel the same urgency they might have felt earlier in the year.
Hillary Sardinas of Albany, California, said her eldest child is eligible for the vaccine. While she’s confident in the science behind the vaccine, she doesn’t feel pressured to have her son get vaccinated immediately.
“Maybe it’s a luxury, but we feel comfortable with the protocols at his school and live in an area with high vaccination rates,” Sardinas told VOA. “My son has a fear of shots, and so I thought knowing his friends got it, and waiting to do it in our pediatrician’s office where he’ll feel more comfortable, is a good thing for him.”
While Sardinas is sure she’ll have her son get the vaccine before the end of the year, Paino isn’t nearly as confident.
“I feel like the debate around the vaccine has become so political,” she said, “and it has made me lose trust in where I’m getting my information from. I want to trust science, but I feel like I don’t know what the truth is. You have doctors arguing both sides.”
To trust or not to trust
“The only ‘experts’ arguing against vaccines right now are rogue doctors, rogue scientists, and conspiracy theorists,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and one of the most notable vaccine experts in the United States.
COVID-19 cases have been less widespread among children than adults, though the number of children and adolescents admitted to the hospital with the virus increased nearly fivefold this summer as the delta variant surged.
In the U.S., more than 8,300 children aged 5-11 have been hospitalized with serious illness caused by the coronavirus. An additional 5,200 children and teens have developed multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), a condition linked to COVID-19 that often leads to hospitalization.
The CDC trial found the Pfizer-BioNTech pediatric vaccine is effective in protecting children from the worst effects of the disease.
“The science on this is very clear,” Offit said. “The CDC-approved vaccine is effective in keeping children safe from coronavirus.”
Despite consensus among scientists, nearly one in three parents remain opposed to having their child receive the vaccine.
“I’m not against vaccinations,” said Janelle Witten of Gastonia, North Carolina. Witten has a son who is eligible for the pediatric vaccine, and she also is pregnant. “But I’m not willing to risk the health of my children on a vaccine that doesn’t have data on its long-term health effects.”
Alberto Perez of Blairsville, Georgia, has similar concerns for his children.
“If this was a virus killing 3% to 5% of children, I would have my kids get the vaccine immediately,” he said, “but that’s not what this is. I don’t feel coronavirus is as big a threat as the unknown odds of long-term side effects caused by the vaccine — fertility issues, for example.”
The concern over future fertility issues was repeated by several parents interviewed, but Offit said it should not be a reason for concern.
“It’s a false notion that science can disprove,” Offit said. “Clinical trials included pregnant women with no issue. This is an example of those against the vaccine throwing things against a wall to see what will make people scared. Because when people are scared it’s difficult to unscare them.”
Offit said those who get the vaccine should feel confident that long-term side effects will not surface.
“When you get a vaccine, you have what is called ‘immune response’ almost immediately,” he said. “It doesn’t crop up years from now, it peaks within 7-10 days. That’s the response, and we know that because we’ve seen how other similar vaccines work.”
Some parents will likely wait additional weeks or months, making sure their kids’ classmates are vaccinated without issue, before letting their own children get the COVID-19 vaccine.
However, Jesse Readlynn said he’s done waiting.
“The chance of a child getting seriously sick from coronavirus is low,” he acknowledged. “But they’re still much more likely to get sick from COVID than from the vaccine. I’m hopeful this turns out to be the light at the end of the tunnel for my children as we exit this uncertainty and get back to a normal life.”