Pediatricians and parents are preparing for an expansion of the COVID-19 vaccine for Georgia children between five and 11.

Pediatricians and parents are preparing for an expansion of the COVID-19 vaccine for Georgia children between five and 11.

Credit: Julio César Velásquez Mejía from Pixabay

Naomi Williams of Evans said the beginning of the pandemic was especially tough on her family, including her 12-year-old son.

He has been diagnosed with a long list of conditions, including epilepsy and chronic lung disease, which makes him more susceptible to COVID-19.

“Living with a disability makes your life different anyway, because we live in a world that serves abled bodies,” said Williams, vaccine project coordinator for the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities. “So, COVID has required us to be that much more cautious and that much more closed in and separated from the world, from people. So we did have to stop therapy for quite a while. We had to stop school and did online learning, which was not learning for us. My son is visually impaired, so doing virtual school is not effective.”

When her son turned 12, the minimum age to become vaccinated for COVID-19, she decided to give him the shot, but it was not an easy decision.

What swayed her was a discussion with his pediatrician, who told her contracting COVID-19 would be far worse for him than any potential side effects from the vaccine.

“A cold for him can be life-threatening,” she said. “A cold for me is just the cold. A cold for him can turn into pneumonia. And with chronic lung disease, it just can go south really quick. So we didn’t make this decision without a lot of thought and trepidation and concern, but since he has been vaccinated, my mind has been more at ease. I’ve done what I can do as a parent to best protect him, and potentially others.”

Parents of more than 987,000 Georgia children will soon be faced with the same decision. That’s the number of Georgians between the ages of 5 and 11 who are expected to become eligible for vaccination in the coming weeks.

On Oct. 7, vaccine maker Pfizer asked the Food and Drug Administration to approve a pediatric vaccine with a smaller dose than the adult version for emergency use approval, which could come before Thanksgiving.

The FDA is set to hold a committee meeting over the child vaccines Oct. 26, and White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC News Sunday he expects the treatment to be approved by early next month.

A planning guide for medical practitioners published by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that “the months of November and December have multiple holidays. This should be considered in site selection and planning.”

Georgia, like much of the rest of the country, has reported lower numbers of cases among children as the back-to-school spike of August and September appears to have subsided.

During the two weeks that ended Oct. 4, the state reported 7,725 positive tests among residents between 5 and 17, or a rate of 418 positive cases per 100,000 people. In the final two weeks of August, there were more than 30,000 positive tests reported with a positivity rate of 1,626 per 100,000, representing a reduction of about three quarters.

Children are less likely to get seriously ill from COVID-19, but in some cases, they can develop severe symptoms — 20 Georgians under 18 have died from COVID-19 out of the more than 23,800 confirmed statewide deaths, according to state health department data.

But some children are at greater risk than others — of those 20 childhood deaths, 12 had confirmed chronic conditions, and five had their status marked as unknown by the health department, and children with underlying conditions are more likely to become sick enough to require hospitalization.

Getting children vaccinated will reduce the risk for them, the adults in their lives and more vulnerable classmates who are not vaccinated, experts say.

That’s part of the reason pediatricians like Dr. Hugo Scornik of Conyers say they are excited to be able to offer the treatment to their patients.

“If a lot of 5- to 11-year-olds get vaccinated, they’re not bringing it home to their parents, to their siblings; I do think epidemiologists would expect this would have a significant effect,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to its authorization. I’m looking forward to the next step in being able to offer this to some of our school-age kids. I think it’s exciting.”

Georgia’s pediatricians have been giving out COVID shots to those 16 and up since they were first introduced, and they expanded to 12 to 15-year-olds in May following FDA approval for that age group, but there are some slight differences between the five to 11 and 12 and up versions that doctors will need to plan for.

“There’s going to be some differences: The dosage is going to be different for 5 to 11-year-olds, it’s going to be a different vial, and we’re going to have to figure that out,” said Scornik, who is also president of the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The chapter has been hosting webinars for physicians with instructions on how to use the new vaccines, which require some logistical differences from their grownup counterparts. For example, the child vaccine requires a different substance in a different concentration to dilute it before administering than the adult version.

And while the CDC says the federal government has enough vaccines for the 5 to 11 population, around the country some are expecting an initial rush due to pent-up demand. Doctors in Georgia are planning to deal with that as well, Scornik said.

“In our practice, right now we’re giving vaccine daily, but we’re thinking about if we have a surge of calls, right when it gets approved, we may open up and just spend a Saturday here vaccinating kids," he said. 

“We do kind of expect that. That has sort of been the trend. We got a lot of calls at the beginning, and then it’s more one-on-one conversations at checkups.”

But adults have been eligible for the vaccine for months, and many have not exactly been rushing to get their COVID shot.

As of Oct. 15, Georgia ranks No. 41 in the nation for the proportion of its population that has been fully vaccinated. Medical professionals have lamented vaccine hesitancy for contributing to the high spread of the COVID-19 delta variant in August and September that had Georgia hospital workers overwhelmed.

In a September nationwide poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 34% of parents of children between five and 11 said they will get their children vaccinated as soon as they can, and another 32% said they would wait and see. That’s an increase in vaccine acceptance from July, when 26% said they’d get their kids vaccinated right away and 40% said they’d wait and see.

Parents should rest assured that the vaccine is safe, effective and well-tested, said Amelia Hess, public relations coordinator for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

“The COVID-19 vaccines — such as those from Pfizer and Moderna — apply science and technology that has been studied for several decades,” she said. “These vaccines are safe and effective at preventing or reducing the severity of infection due to COVID-19, demonstrated in millions of adult and teen vaccine recipients.”

They should also listen to their children’s concerns and explain to them the importance of getting the shot at an age-appropriate level.

“As with all immunizations, it’s important to explain to your child that the vaccine they are receiving is protecting both themselves and others from potential illness,” she said. “It’s also wise to prepare your child that they may feel a quick pinch or sting while receiving the vaccination so they are prepared for the sensation.”

The state Department of Public Health is also playing a role in encouraging the childhood vaccines, spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said.

“DPH is and has been working to bring on more COVID vaccine providers, particularly pediatricians. We’re working with (the Georgia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians) on an educational webinar about the vaccines, that info is still evolving, talking to their patients/parents about getting children vaccinated and a step by step on how to enroll as a vaccine provider. That webinar will take place in a couple weeks as we get more details on authorization and recommendations/guidelines.”

The department is also able to break down trays of Pfizer vaccine into more manageable sizes to make storage and handling easier for smaller practices and providers, she added.

Williams is using her role to encourage other parents of children with developmental disabilities to have their children vaccinated. Often, that means discussing how to overcome barriers, especially transportation, but she said she has also found sharing the change in her son’s life to be effective in swaying other moms and dads.

“He is very observant; he is aware,” she said. “Prior to this, we weren’t going out. I mean, prior to COVID, we’re a very active family. He would do races and we go to the grocery store and just whatever we are doing out and about. COVID hit all of that stuff. He didn’t go to the grocery store for a year and a half. The most out he did was we would take rides in a car. He wasn’t going in the stores, and now that he is fully vaccinated, we have been out and about more. Still not fully — we’re not going to spend an hour in the mall — but his world has opened up again.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.