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As the United States neared the green light for the Pfizer pediatric COVID-19 vaccine, many families were eager to start the vaccination series and others were more hesitant—and families across the board may have questions regarding the vaccine. The medical staff at Unity Care NW would like to help parents and guardians work through these questions to help make the right choice for their children.

Lisa Nelson,Pharmacy Director, and Rachel Herman, Medical Operations Manager, both of Unity Care NW, say there are a few things all parents and guardians should be aware of as they consider the COVID vaccine for their children.

“From my perspective, there’s a lot of concerns about whether the vaccine is safe, and I think it’s important to know that we have data to support that the vaccine is safe,” Nelson says. “Children aren’t at as much risk as adults, but the risk for children for a negative outcome from actually getting COVID is far more significant than any small risk [from the vaccine].

Families should ask the questions they need to feel confident about getting their child vaccinated, say the health care professionals at Unity Care NW. Photo courtesy Unity Care NW

Data from the trials of the Pfizer vaccine does show the vaccine is safe and effective for children ages 5 to 11. The studies show it is more than 90% effective for this age group, which is in line with results for adults and older children.

“It’s reassuring to know that even with this more infectious strain (Delta), and being the circulating variant during the trial, that we still had such high efficacy at preventing symptomatic illness in this age group,” says Nelson.

The dosage of the vaccine has been reduced to one third of that given to older recipients. In lowering the amount of vaccine given, the efficacy has not waned, she says, but it appears that the side effects are less prevalent. However, children could still get common side effects such as a headache, slight fever, or sore arm.

As families consider getting their children vaccinated, one thing Nelson notes is that children currently make up a larger percentage of COVID cases in Whatcom County than previously. As the Delta variant continues to make its rounds, county health department data shows the highest rate of confirmed cases in the age group of 5 to 11—exactly the group that became eligible for the Pfizer vaccine upon its approval.

“We’re seeing cases coming down in age groups that have access to the vaccine, but we have a population of 5 to 11-year-olds who don’t have access to the vaccine right now and they are carrying the largest burden of cases in our community,” Nelson says.

Happy, healthy kids are the goal of the health care providers at Unity Care NW. Photo courtesy Unity Care NW

Nelson and Herman recognize that not everyone will be eager to have their children vaccinated immediately. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that about one-third of the population is expected to get the vaccine right away, while one-third is taking a wait-and-see attitude and the final third will probably decline the vaccine.

“Certainly, parents should reach out to their pediatrician or primary care provide if they have specific questions related to individual conditions their children have,” says Herman.

When will the vaccine be available?

Unity Care NW will be ready to begin giving children within their network vaccinations beginning Wednesday, November 10th.

Not all providers will have the same availability, however, as it depends on each provider’s vaccine supplier. Nelson says the Federal Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) is Unity Care NW’s direct supplier and they were able to place orders for the vaccine at the end of October. Some other providers order through the state’s Department of Health, which has different ordering timelines and allocation amounts compared to HRSA’s ordering system. Ultimately, by ordering from a different agency, the community benefits as we’re able to bring more vaccine into our county.

A young patient gets an after-immunization prize at the Unity Care NW clinic. Photo courtesy Unity Care NW

For those who are not part of the Unity Care NW network, check with your pediatrician’s office or visit vaccinelocator.doh.wa.gov to find out where the vaccine for ages 5-11 is currently available.

Herman says she believes clinic managers have learned from the early days of vaccine distribution last winter what works and what doesn’t for timely distribution. That means there should be less likelihood of demand outpacing supply.

“What I have seen at the federal level,” Herman says, “is an attempt to get vaccine product in health centers before the recommendation goes live, so we can get ourselves operationally prepped and ready for when the recommendation does come out so that we can turn the switch on and start seeing kids.”

One difference parents may see as the vaccine roles out for children is that the mass vaccination clinics that were deployed to get older children and adults vaccinated probably won’t be as common for this younger group.

“What we do know is that 5-11 age group isn’t really conducive to running them through one of those really large-scale vaccine models,” says Herman.

Instead, she says, most vaccinations will probably be given as would any other childhood immunizations, within the providers office.

Herman said Unity Care NW is reaching out to the Bellingham School District to see if they can help provide vaccines to elementary-school-aged children within the district. While nothing is confirmed yet, Herman said she expects a mobile vaccination clinic or something similar might be worked out.

“One thing we do really well as a community health center is identify those populations that don’t have easy access to healthcare and really try to think about where we can make the biggest impact,” she says. Other programs may include offering Uber vouchers to provide families transportation to get vaccinated.

Give kids the “why”

Once parents have made the decision to vaccinate their children, then comes what’s often the hardest part—helping them through the scary part of actually getting the shot.

Nelson offers some advice, not as a pharmacist but as a parent, on how to help kids address their hesitancy to get a shot.

“I never wanted to blindside my child, taking him to the doctor’s office and not letting him know that he was getting a vaccine,” she says.

She always discusses with her son why he is getting a shot: to keep him healthy as well as those around him.

“For some children, understanding the goal is to help us get back to normal—being able to do all the fun things kids like to do” is enough to convince them getting a shot is worth it, she adds.

Most importantly, she hopes parents get the answers they need to feel confident in their decision.

“I hope that we can build trust with parents that the vaccine is safe,” says Nelson. “We’re all here to answer questions and help parents feel comfortable when they make their individual vaccine decisions for their children.”

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