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How will adult COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy impact kid vaccinations?

Experts say children play a critical role in the state's herd immunity timeline
Posted at 3:31 PM, May 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-14 18:31:16-04

(WXYZ)  — Next week Benjamin Durkee has a birthday. And if all goes as planned his mom Suzy Durkee is hoping the day will include a scientific gift: a vaccine shot.

"He turns 12 on the 20ths so he’s eligible next Thursday," said Suzy Durkee.

"Happy Birthday to you!" she continued, with a joking smile.

While Durkee is cheeky about the prospect of giving her son a shot on his special day. She’s serious when it comes to her reasoning: Herd immunity and a return to normalcy.

This week the FDA gave emergency approval to the two-dose Pfizer vaccination for children 12 and older (it had previously just been available to those 16 and older). The expansion in eligibility means a new sector of the population is now able to sign up for the shot — and boost the country's herd immunity numbers. It also has revived longstanding conversations around vaccines and children.

"Our kids grew up in the strong 'vaccination-in-general dilemma' so this has been sort of a conversation I’ve had throughout my kids' whole lives about vaccinations in general," said Durkee, who works as a dental hygenist and ultimately had few qualms about getting the vaccine for Benjamin.

"I had no hesitations," said Durkee, later adding: "Everybody says this came about so fast, but it really hasn’t. MRNA vaccines have been in the works for over a decade."

While Durkee is right scientists have been studying and working on MRNA vaccines for years, their debut with the pandemic has meant experts are working overtime when it comes to calming fears. And explaining, specifically, what this means for kids.

"Once it’s approved with an emergency use authorization, what you have is a bunch of experts looking at the data and telling you that this is a safe vaccine," said Dr. Aimee Gordon, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan.

"Certainly getting this vaccine is much safer than getting COVID for your child," she continued.

While kids have been said to have more mild reactions to COVID, there have been thousands of hospitalizations. During the week of April 22 for example, 70 kids in the state were in a hospital because of COVID-19. A record high.

"For a lot of people, I hear 'Yeah but kids aren’t at risk for COVID-19, you know, why do we need to get our kids vaccinated once all the adults are vaccinated? Isn’t it just fine?'" said Gordon. "It’s a misconception."

As some of the last to be vaccine eligible they are also, now, a significant number of the state’s cases. According to data from the American Academy of Pediatrics, in the second week of April kids account for 1 in 5 of the detected COVID-19 cases across the country. Last week the state reported 197 new infections at 65 K-12 schools across the state. In other words, kids remain as vectors and have become a critical part of the herd immunity timeline.

"Getting to herd immunity is important, it’s what we need right now to really end this pandemic," said Gordon. "And in the US, children under 18 are 25% of the population."

Wanting to get a better handle on how the state would fare now that families had this new option for kids, we put out an open call on Facebook asking parents how they felt. We were inundated with responses; all representing a range of opinions.

Many were excited, but there were also some skeptics. With vaccine hesitancy among adults being a dilemma plaguing the United States right now, it follows that similar issues would track when posing the question for children.

"Do I as the parent make the choice? What if the parents haven't gotten the shot either?" asked mother Lauren Ritz, whose son Caleb will be 12 this summer.

"He is very hard to deal with to get regular vaccines," she wrote, explaining that her son was special needs. "Do I put him through that again? Do I ask my son? When I know the answer will be no?"

In a subsequent interview, Ritz explained that while some in her family had gotten the vaccine, others hadn't and she was in that latter camp. She saw the shots as still being experimental.

While experts like Gordon anticipated fears about the vaccine for children — in line with the scientifically debunked anti-vaxxer movement — the COVID vaccine is unique. Hesitancy is not just about kids. It's starting with adults and trickling down.

"Why should I put something in my child that I wouldn’t put in myself?" she asked, noting that she ultimately decided to leave it up to Colin, who currently is not interested.

"He’s like mom you’re not doing, I don’t think I should," said Ritz.

While Ritz and her son represent a clear segment of the population, the responses to 7 Action News ran the gamut. For many parents — and their kids —  the vaccine represents a return to normalcy after an upside-down year.

"It’s changed everything for me: school, activities, friends — you can’t go out there and do much," said 14-year-old Colin Brown, who is eager to get vaccinated, calling it a necessity for "survival."

"Another reason he wanted to get the shot was maybe it would help the kid who was unable to be vaccinated, so they can come back to school so we can get back to some kind of normalcy," said Laura Brown, Colin's mom. "He just doesn't understand why people are so hesitant."

Brown is currently checking the Beaumont Health System to figure out when she can get appointments for Colin and his 15-year-old sister. The hope is that. the kids can go to camp this summer, but also return safely — and comfortably — to school.

"My daughter has struggled a lot this year," said Brown, digging into the challenges of remote learning. "She’s going to have to repeat the tenth grade — she might not even graduate at this point in time."

The sentiment was repeated by Durkee, whose son struggles with dyslexia.

"He has a hard time reading, so you put him in front of a computer screen and tell him to read himself, his education— I mean it was impossible," she said.

While school resumed in person in February, she still couldn't get Benjamin to go. The pandemic had created new fears for him.

"He was so terrified and so anxious, I could not physically get him back to school until about three weeks ago," she said.

It was for this reason that the vaccine was obvious.

"For me," said Durkee, "it’s important that he can consistently go in-person learning and do it in a healthy way."