Distrust, misinformation and delays due to the holidays and bad weather combined have led to an alarmingly low COVID-19 vaccination rate among US children aged 5 to 11, officials say.
As of Tuesday, just over 17 percent had been fully vaccinated, more than two months after shots became available for the age group. While Vermont ranks at 48 percent, California is just shy of 19 percent and Mississippi is at just 5 percent.
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Vaccination increased in the primary school set after shots were introduced in the fall, but numbers have slowly risen since then, and Omicron’s explosive spread has had little effect.
The low rates are “very disturbing,” said Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “It’s just wonderful.”
“Parents who hesitate are taking a huge risk and fueling the pandemic,” Murphy said.
Hospitalization of children under the age of 18 with COVID-19 in the US has reached its highest level in the past few weeks. COVID-19 has made many other conditions worse, although many are not so ill that they require intensive care.
Low vaccination rates and rising hospitalizations “have a gut punch, especially when we’re working so hard to keep these kids well,” said Dr., a pediatrician in Overland Park, Kansas. Natasha Burgert said.
Vaccines have been shown to be highly safe and effective in reducing the risk of serious illness, hospitalization and death.
Overall, 63 percent of Americans have been fully vaccinated. The rate is 54 percent among 12 to 17-year-olds.
COVID-19 shots for young children are authorized in at least 12 countries. In Canada, where Pfizer shots were approved in November for ages 5 to 11, only 2 percent are fully vaccinated.
Snow storms, tornadoes and other heavy weather in December are believed to have slowed the pace of vaccination in the US, along with the busy holiday season. Also, some parents are distrustful because the vaccine is so new, and many have other concerns.
Chicago mother Kendra Shaw has resisted shots for her two schoolchildren, saying she is concerned about the potential risks and not convinced the benefits are worth it.
But this week, her 10-year-old daughter requested for vaccinations so she wouldn’t miss school, and her soon-to-be 7-year-old son asked for his shots so he could have a big birthday party.
Shaw scheduled his first dose for Wednesday but said: “I’m really on the fence.”
Daniel Kotzin of Denver said he is convinced he made the right decision not to vaccinate his 5-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son because most Omicron cases seem to be mild.
“They’re not necessarily at risk of harm, so I don’t really understand the reason to vaccinate them,” he said.
Doctors say this kind of thinking is wrong and is part of the problem.
Elizabeth Murray, a pediatric emergency medicine physician in Rochester, New York, and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said, “It’s true, children in general do better than adults with COVID,” but still ‘not very sick. ‘ It could mean being miserable with a fever and muscle aches for a week. It can also mean MIS-C or Long COVID.
MIS-C, or multisystem inflammatory syndrome, is a rare but serious condition associated with COVID-19 that can affect multiple organs and usually requires hospitalization.
Officials don’t think Omicron is making children and adults more seriously ill than other types, and say hospitalization rates are rising partly because it’s so much more contagious.
Doctors say some children have been admitted for conditions such as lung disease, diabetes and sickle cell disease, which have worsened because of an omicron infection.
Dr. Jesse Haeckel, a pediatrician in Pomona, New York, said at least 25 percent of his patients aged 5 to 11 are vaccinated, but after the initial rush in the fall, the numbers have dwindled.
“It’s a tough sell,” he said. “We’re not ready” is a common comment, Haeckel said. “When I ask, ‘What are you waiting for?’ I kind of get a shrug. I’ve said something like, ‘We’re not going to be the first million. We’ll wait and see what happens.'”
Frustrated Haeckel said the government’s vaccination campaign is clearly struggling against misinformation and “pseudoscience” the likes of which he had never seen before in his more than 40 years as a pediatrician.
He said the government needs to be tough and give a mandate to the shots.
“If we can get every child vaccinated across the board, it will go a long way. It will not end the pandemic, but it will end serious disease,” Haeckel said. “It could help turn the virus from the common cold into a more severe form, and we can deal with that.”
AP writers Rebecca Santana in New Orleans and Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami contributed to this report.