By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
The woman’s voice on the phone was eager, intent, and even breathy in its desire to help.
“We have nurses that can answer questions, too,” she said.
The call center, run by King County, for help with scheduling COVID-19 vaccinations is the latest sign of a pandemic response that has now reached a new stage—vaccines for children.
As a reporter spoke to the agent, she was able to connect him with a Chinese interpreter, one of multiple languages available. It was also an indication of one of the ways that the government and the private sector are rallying around the influx of the newly-authorized pediatric vaccines.
The state, King County, school districts, pharmacies and neighborhood health providers are in the process of receiving the first batch of the vaccines, that were unanimously endorsed by advisory members of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for children between the ages of 5-11.
“Several independent panels of experts advising those agencies found the vaccine to be 90% effective at preventing symptoms of Covid-19,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer with Public Health–Seattle & King County, at a media briefing last week.
The vaccines have also been endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians.
It is just in time.
The highest incidence of infection among any age group in King County, over the past seven days, has been among 5-17 year olds, with a rate of 159/100,000. Among 18-64 year olds, the rate is 124/100,000. The number of children in the 5-11 year age group who have died of COVID-19 has reached approximately 94 in King County, since the pandemic started.
“Children should not be dying at 5-11 years of age,” said Duchin. “Some people might be saying that’s a relatively small number compared with the number of adults, but again, children should not be dying at that age.”
COVID-19 has become the eighth-leading cause of death for children in that age group since the pandemic started.
There are other dangers.
Once young children are hospitalized, one-third require intensive care. Nor does the virus particularly afflict children that are medically fragile—one-third of those who have severe Covid are otherwise healthy.
Children are in danger of developing multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS) or long-haul Covid, which could permanently stunt brain development. They can also transmit the virus in school and other gatherings, “that are so important to children’s development,” said Duchin. “I think it’s quite clear this is a very significant disease for children.”
Some parents are reacting already.
At a vaccine clinic for children run by University of Washington (UW) Medicine at Shoreline Community College last week, a dozen parents brought their kids to be vaccinated for television crews in the hope it would inspire other families.
Crystal Wong, a family medicine doctor affiliated with the UW, said, “The Covid vaccine is the best defense against getting it and the right thing to do to protect people who are medically fragile. We had no doubts at all about getting it for our own kids. None for our own kids. As a healthcare worker, I got mine in December,” she told the Northwest Asian Weekly.
Some of the children getting the vaccine seemed initially concerned at getting a shot. Wong’s son, 10-year-old Micah, wearing a black mask and green baseball cap, kept his eyes straight ahead as the needle headed for his arm. But the moment it made contact, he turned his head to watch.
“I feel really excited that I get to do more things, and I don’t have to be as worried about the virus,” he told reporters.
The pediatric vaccine is a smaller version of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine used for adults. It has the same active ingredients but is 10 mcg while the adult formulation is 30 mcg.
“Children 5-11 must receive this pediatric formulation, they cannot just get one-half of the adult formulation,” said Duchin. He added the same vaccine has been given to over 200 million people in the U.S. and has an excellent safety record. There is a very low incidence of myocarditis—heart inflammation—in males. But it is less common among this age group.
The complications of myocarditis are much less than the actual complications that Covid causes in the heart in the same age groups and young children. A person is more likely to have a serious cardiac event from Covid-19, whereas the carditis that is uncommon but can occur in younger males is less complicated and most people recover uneventfully, said Duchin.
At the last update, cardiologists caring for these patients reported 90% had recovered at the time of follow up, he said.
“The cost benefit clearly favors vaccination for this age group.”
Many parents agree. While the state, the county, and school districts are in the process of receiving doses, waiting lists are filling up.
King County is in the process of receiving an initial 97,000 doses from the CDC, enough to vaccinate 48,000 children in this age group, which is roughly one-fourth of the total 200,000 eligible in the county.
“School districts in King County are partnering with a number of different vaccinating partners, including Costco, Safeway, Seattle Visiting Nurses Association, Othello Station Pharmacy, Harborview Medical Center, local EMS providers, and others,” according to a spokesperson for Public Health — Seattle & King County.
UW Medicine received 5,700 doses on Nov. 2 and expects more in coming days. And some pharmacies and community health care centers have already received doses. There is an increased urgency because children can transmit the coronavirus—so vaccinating them protects not just them but their families and the community, said Duchin.
As winter approaches, it is especially important.
“Our kids are ready to get vaccinated, they’re back at school, and there is still a lot of anxiety about Covid,” said Dr. Shireesha Dhanireddy, infectious diseases and clinical lead of the UW Medicine COVID-19 vaccination clinics. “Even just a case of the sniffles, our usual winter sniffles, are bringing much fear and concern among not only the kids, but the parents and teachers.”
Wong told Northwest Asian Weekly that she knows some parents are hesitant.
“I understand their concerns, they are concerned about it because it’s their own kids,” she said, her three kids and her husband at her side. “The vaccine is very safe. The threat is real. And going into winter, with the increased need to stay indoors, the risk is much worse than any side effects.”
Sashi Olson, 9, the son of Dhanireddy, was wearing a sweatshirt from Camp Orkila—a summer camp where he said he learned archery. As if watching the flight of an arrow, he kept his eyes glued on the needle as it arced to his arm. But once the vaccination was over, he cavorted behind his mother as she talked to a reporter.
Like their kids, these parents could now sigh with relief. In another three weeks, their children would get the second dose. Then two weeks after that, they’d be fully immunized.
On Nov. 6, the Washington State Department of Health announced a significant milestone in the state’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, just days after children became eligible. More than 10 million doses of vaccine have been given out across Washington since distribution began in mid-December 2020.
Duchin stressed,“People need to understand, if you’re not vaccinated, Delta will find you. It’s just a matter of time.”
To sign up for the King County waiting list for pediatric vaccines, go to: kingcounty.gov/depts/health/covid-19/vaccine/distribution.aspx.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This health series is made possible by funding from the Washington State Department of Health, which has no editorial input or oversight of this content.