Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy spoke to parent concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine for kids
After months of waiting, the COVID-19 vaccine for kids has finally been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — and millions of kids are lining up for shots while families celebrate what could be a huge step toward ending the pandemic.
But while kids ages 5-11 are getting vaccinated at rates higher than adults at the moment, and over 10% have already received their first jab, there’s still a long way to go until all eligible children in this age group are protected.
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy wants to make sure that we make good progress — and that means educating the country’s parents and caregivers as much as humanly possible, so that everyone understands how safe and effective the shots are, especially in comparison to kids contracting the virus. He held a media briefing this week to answer all of the most common questions and concerns parents and guardians have about the COVID vaccine and to share the expertise of several leading national pediatricians.
Murthy was joined by Dr. Lee Ann Savio Beers, the President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Kenneth Alexander, the Chief of Infectious Diseases at Nemours Children’s Health, and Dr. Jody Thomas, Founder and CEO of The Meg Foundation.
Together the four doctors and medical experts expressed their joy and relief that the vaccine is available and shared their deep knowledge about vaccinations, children’s health, and public health. Here are some of their best takeaways.
Is the COVOD-19 vaccine effective for kids?
Murthy shared that the vaccine had undergone rigorous testing and was found to be 90% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID, while only causing mild side effects in a small percentage of kids and severe side effects in almost no one.
“This is a landmark moment for the fight against COVID,” he said. “We have an opportunity to protect some of our most vulnerable community members. I say this as a dad with two kids under 12, and I’ve been waiting with my wife Alice for this moment.”
He went on to say that the vaccine will grant our children what they’ve needed for 18 months: a return to normalcy as well as greater overall health.
“This will allow our children to regain parts of their lives that they’ve missed during this pandemic,” he said. “So many have been interrupted or canceled altogether — too many kids are struggling with anxiety depression and loneliness.”
Dr. Beers added a personal point about the vaccine’s safety: “Every pediatrician I know with kids 5-11 got an appointment within the first week, if not the first day. It was an easy choice for my husband and I.”
Is the COVOD-19 vaccine risky or dangerous for kids?
Dr. Alexander was quick to point out that while no vaccine is without risk, the risks of kids being harmed by COVID is significantly higher.
“More than 750 children have died,” he explained. “It’s now the eighth most common cause of death in children age 5-11.”
Dr. Beers had more sobering statistics to add, both about the devastation caused by COVID and about the harm that we would do to our children by letting the pandemic continue unabated.
“More than 6.6 million children have been infected with this virus,” she said. “For 14 weeks in a row, more than 100,000 children have been diagnosed each week. Hundreds of children have died, thousands have been hospitalized, and some have long-term effects. Children have suffered too: 140,000 kids have lost a caregiver. Millions more have suffered disruptions, lost social connections. It’s taken a serious toll on their mental health — there’s increasing depression, anxiety, loneliness, and suicide.”
These numbers are much larger than the numbers of children who might experience serious COVID side effects, as seen in the study. For example, while myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart — has been recorded in a very small number of patients, far more kids have landed in the hospital from myocarditis from COVID.
“The good news is that [myocarditis] rare, as low as 5 per million,” said Dr. Alexander. “It’s mild and responds well to therapy. Most that we’ve seen has been due to COVID, not due to vaccines.”
What can we do about needle anxiety and kids?
Dr. Thomas, a medial anxiety expert, had a strong message for parents who don’t know how to convince their kids to get two shots without a trauma and a fight: there are proven strategies that you can use to fight back against needle fear — and as a country we need to educate ourselves on these strategies so that needle anxiety doesn’t affect our COVID-19 vaccination rates or hurt our chances for herd immunity.
She explained that needle anxiety is not new, even though it doesn’t have to happen.
“Even pre-COVID, 8 percent would cite the pain of the needle as the reason not to vaccinate their kids,” she said. “The freakout is seen as a necessary evil even though decades of research show that’s not the case.”
Dr. Thomas shared a thorough list of strategies that she recommends, which included comfort positioning, numbing creams, vibration, distraction, and rewards.
She also stressed that involving your kids in the plan for the shot gives them power and control that helps them cope — let them decide if they need to bring a stuffy, what they want to watch on your phone, what reward to get after (ice cream or nachos?).
“Choice is power, and giving kids that power reduces their anxiety.”
She also said that there is no reason for any child to be held down and forced to get a shot — though positioning, like being held by a parent, can help some kids.
Finally, she suggested explaining to your kids the importance of getting vaccinated.
“Letting kids know that they’re doing something to protect themselves and other is really powerful,” she said. “We never want fear and anxiety to make decisions for us.”
Where can we get valid information about COVID-19 vaccines for kids?
All four doctors were concerned about COVID-19 misinformation, especially since false facts about the kids’ vaccine has already been spreading quickly. Everyone took a moment to hammer home that the first and best person to ask for information is your kids’ pediatrician. Aside from that, seek out info from your local health center or your health department.
Just as important as knowing where to find the right information is knowing how to sift through information that you might find on the web or social media.
The Surgeon General recently shared a helpful misinformation checklist on Twitter.
All of the experts took a moment to commend the nation’s parents for their hard work and bravery during the pandemic.
“Parents have been nothing less than heroic during this pandemic,” Murthy said. “We see you. We are grateful for you and have have your back. Together we can take a giant step forward at combating this pandemic.”
For more information about the COVID-19 vaccine for kids ages 5-11, you may download a community tool kit at www.surgeongeneral.gov — or talk to your kids’ pediatrician about your specific question.