Health workers across the United States began to give Covid-19 vaccinations to children 6 months to 5 years old on Tuesday, another milestone in the coronavirus pandemic that came 18 long months after adults first began to receive injections against the virus.
But the response from parents was notably muted, with little indication of the excitement and long lines that greeted earlier vaccine rollouts.
An April poll showed that less than a fifth of parents of children under 5 were eager to get access to the shot right away. Early adopters in this age group appeared to be outliers.
At 9 a.m., Dayton Children’s Hospital in Ohio became one of the first sites to vaccinate the youngest children, with the three-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine meant for this age group. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also endorsed a second option for young children, a two-dose regimen from Moderna.
Brian Wentzel, 38, brought his 2-year-old son, Bodhi, at 9:15 a.m. The boy clutched a stuffed dog and bravely took the shot in his leg. His mother is a physician at the hospital.
“It was important to get him vaccinated,” Mr. Wentzel said. “It is extremely effective at preventing severe illness.”
At a White House news conference on Tuesday afternoon, President Biden called the expanded vaccines “a monumental step forward.”
“The United States,” he continued, “is now the first country in the world to offer safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines for children as young as 6 months old.”
He encouraged all Americans to get vaccinated and said parents should speak to a family doctor if they had questions. In addition to doctors’ offices, hospitals and clinics, the pharmacy chains CVS, Walgreens and Walmart would soon offer vaccines to the youngest children, Mr. Biden said.
The president also addressed, albeit obliquely, a controversy in Florida, where the state declined to preorder vaccine doses for young children. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican with presidential ambitions, said last week, “We are affirmatively against the Covid vaccine for young kids.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Biden said that “elected officials shouldn’t get in the way and make it more difficult for parents.”
Florida has since allowed health care providers to order the shots, but in many places — including Florida and New York — the vaccines did not yet appear to be widely available. Some pediatricians’ offices reported that they had not yet received the shots or that they planned to deliver the vaccine mostly at regularly scheduled well visits.
Yet clamoring from families is limited. The reasons for parental vaccine hesitation are varied. Two years into the pandemic, many families have become resigned to living with the virus, and a majority of American children have already been infected, mostly experiencing mild symptoms.
While the vaccines remain highly effective at protecting against severe illness and death, they have become less effective at preventing infection as the virus has mutated, leading to disappointment and some cynicism from the public toward the injections. Some parents have encountered widespread misinformation about risks, while others are concerned about rare side effects, or simply do not want their children to be among the first to get a newly accessible vaccine.
That is the case even though parents and young children have endured some of the longest-running public health and educational restrictions because of their lack of access to a vaccine. And that is especially true in liberal-leaning states and cities, which took a more cautious approach to the virus.
Many child-care centers and preschools still require masking and quarantine periods for children who come into close contact with the virus, though K-12 schools have generally lifted those precautions. Parents are exhausted after years of disrupted routines and report that their young children have never experienced school or socializing under normal conditions.
Joseph G. Allen, a Harvard University expert on indoor environmental quality, who has studied the coronavirus and schools, said he believed it was time for most restrictions on young children to be lifted. Even if uptake of the newest pediatric vaccine is limited, he said, young children are “lowest risk and have had the highest burdens, as adults go around doing whatever they want to do.”
The best way for child-care centers and schools to protect students and staff members over the next year, when new variants may emerge, is to invest in air-quality improvements such as HVAC-system upgrades and portable air purifiers with HEPA filters, Professor Allen said.
So far, the pediatric vaccine campaign has disappointed many public health experts. Fewer than 30 percent of 5- to 11-year-olds have received two shots, and the vaccination rate may turn out to be even lower among younger children. With parental reluctance high, only California and Washington, D.C., have announced an intention to require Covid-19 vaccination for school attendance, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy.
At a splash pad in West St. Paul, Minn., Jen Wilkerson, 28, a barista, said she did not plan to vaccinate her son Jaxson, 4, even though she was vaccinated.
She said she had worried after he developed lumps in his leg following two vaccines for other diseases, and recalled that Jaxson had not gotten sick when she contracted Covid-19 last year.
“He’s a little window licker,” she said. “With how strong his immune system is, I don’t feel the need for him to get vaccinated right now. I’m waiting for him to get older. I’ll wait till he’s 10 or so.”
In Durant, Miss., Monique Moore, 39, a teacher, said she would wait several months for her son Rashun to turn 5 before getting him vaccinated.
“I didn’t want him to be in the first batch to do it,” she said, “but I didn’t want to not do it either.”
Doctors and vaccine experts say that parents of 4-year-olds should not put off vaccination.
Other parents said that vaccination would allow them to finally move on from a difficult period of their lives.
In Brookline, Mass., Jenn Erickson, 40, quit her job when her son Miro was born at the start of the pandemic. She has “zero hesitation” about getting him vaccinated, she said, because it would allow her to confidently enroll her son in day care while she returns to work.
“It feels like a lot of the world has moved on without us,” Ms. Erickson said. “The kids who were born during the pandemic are finally getting some protection. There’s going to need to be a massive celebration for the parents who have had to hold this massive stress.”
And for some families, the new vaccine will be life-changing.
Whitney Stohr, 35, of Lynnwood, Wash., planned to take her 4-year-old son, Malachi Stohr-Hendrickson, to get vaccinated on Tuesday at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Malachi has spina bifida, hydrocephalus and congenital heart defects that put him at high risk for complications from Covid-19. For more than two years, the family has stayed isolated.
The shot will mean that Malachi will start in-person occupational and physical therapy and preschool. And since he needs round-the-clock assistance, he will go back to receiving respite care from Ms. Stohr’s mother.
“It’s just going to be a huge sense of relief,” Ms. Stohr said. “It will remove just a deep-seated fear that the virus will get him before we have a chance to try to stop it and try to prevent it.”
Reporting was contributed by Kevin Williams, Christina Capecchi, Ellen B. Meacham, Catherine McGloin, Alanis Thames, Adam Bednar and Hallie Golden.
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