The Race to Keep Our Children Safe: COVID Boosters For Kids Are Here

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Christal Mims

Along with the rest of California, L.A. County is seeing a rise in overall coronavirus cases. This comes after the lifting of several mask mandates around the country. The U.S. is now averaging 100,000 new coronavirus cases a day for the first time since February, and during the month of May, the number of L.A. County COVID-19 hospitalizations rose to its highest level since March.

Five subvariants of the Omicron strain are circulating and more are developing.

More than 350 children ages 5 to 11 have already died from the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC’s count also estimates that three out of four U.S. children between these ages have been infected since the pandemic’s start.

In California, approximately 274,000 children under the age of five and more than 1.3 youth between the ages of 5 and 17 have been infected with the virus as of April 2022.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized a COVID-19 vaccine booster for children ages 5 to 11. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is currently the only vaccine approved for children and is available for those who completed their primary series at least 5 months ago. State officials have formally supported the newly authorized booster dose and are urging those eligible to get boosted as soon as possible.

In a clinical trial of over 2,000 children between the ages of 5 and 11, it was found that the vaccine was over 90 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 symptoms.

“The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine is effective in helping to prevent the most severe consequences of COVID-19 in individuals 5 years of age and older,” said Peter Marks, M.D., Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

Despite its safety and easy access, just 30 percent of 5 to 11 year olds in L.A. County have been vaccinated – with the lowest vaccination rates being among Black and Latino children – compared to the 80 percent of teens and adults. Health officials are urging parents to prioritize getting their children vaccinated, and make sure that the over 255,000 children eligible for a booster shot receive one.

“Our bodies need a boost to remain highly protected,” said L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer at a recent press conference. “We also know that in L.A. County over the past month, cases among children 5 to 11 increased 264%. This is a faster rate of increase than what we saw in young adults ages 18 to 49 where the increase was 116%.”

Dr. Donna White Carey, who has spent over two decades in clinical medicine and is the executive pastor of True Vine Ministries in West Oakland, uses her YouTube channel, “Talking with Dr. Donna” to answer health questions about the coronavirus and more. She also led the church’s COVID response efforts, during which they were able to vaccinate almost 8,000 people. The church’s success can be attributed to her ability to effectively quell concerns and not shame those who hold what she calls, “justified mistrust.”

“It made absolute sense,” Dr. Donna White Carey told L.A. Focus. “You have a new virus. You created a brand new vaccine using brand new technology. You would be a fool to not have questions. Particularly in our community where racism and historical mistreatment of our bodies is documented for centuries.”

She believes physicians should have to earn the trust of the Black community.

“Our bodies have been misused and abused from the time of slavery until present day by the medical and scientifc community. And we cannot ignore that,” she said.

Booster doses are a normal part of most vaccine series and have proven to be the most efficient way to maintain immunity and protection from infection.

“The booster shot is necessary for all of us. We know that the vaccine wanes after about 6 months,” Carey said. “The booster revs back up your antibodies so if you come into contact with COVID, your body is able to fight it off.”

L.A. County health officials are monitoring several outbreaks in schools, making the necessity of booster shots even more apparent.

“While we recognize that many children who test positive experience mild illness, national trends are showing increases in cases and hospitalization rates for children and more concerns about long term impacts of even mild infection in children,” Ferrer said in a statement. “We encourage parents, students, teachers, and staff, during this time of high transmission with the most infectious strains seen to date, to wear a mask when indoors and get vaccinated and boosted when eligible.”

According to the Department of Public Health, there were 5,918 positive cases at L.A. County schools during the week ending May 15 compared to the 2,742 positive cases just a month prior. Ferrer is encouraging school staff and students to take the proper precautions after exposure.

“If we can all do our best to protect each other, and those who are more vulnerable to severe illness or death, we can safely celebrate the end of the school year and enjoy the beginning of summer,” she said.

“Vaccination with a primary series among this age group has lagged behind other age groups leaving them vulnerable to serious illness,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, in a statement. “We know that these vaccines are safe, and we must continue to increase the number of children who are protected,” she said.

A small study concluded that the approved Pfizer vaccine increased the amount of virus-fighting antibodies in young children, including those able to fight off the extremely contagious omicron variant. The omicron surge resulted in twice the rate of hospitalizations amongst children ages 5 to 11 who were unvaccinated versus kids who’d received their first two doses. Black children specifically made up about a third of those hospitalized during the alarming winter surge.

“Increasing vaccination coverage among children, particularly among racial and ethnic minority groups disproportionately affected by Covid-19, is critical to preventing Covid-19-associated hospitalization and severe outcomes,” a C.D.C. study stated, after finding that racial disparities were leaving Black children more exposed to severe illness from the virus.

Dr. Carl Earl Lambert Jr.,MD, an assistant professor and member of the American Medical Association, believes education needs to be at the forefront of outreach efforts, not blame.

“If there’s hesitancy, we don’t get frustrated or angry. We try to see the ‘why’ behind that and handle that with an inquisitive spirit,” he said. “Are we thoroughly educating our patients about the vaccines? Are we treating vaccine hesitancy?”

Dr. Donna White Carey also believes it’s important to speak a language that people can understand and focus on not talking at them, but to them.

“Let’s break it down to where it’s just me and you, and we’re just having a conversation,” Carey explained. “I’m not talking over your head and using all this medical, scientific jargon that you can’t understand.”

The pandemic has undeniably affected everyone, but children have had to face incalculable damage socially and mentally, especially in regard to their academic growth. A Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) study revealed that Black and Hispanic children faced the worst of this impact. Black and Hispanic parents were more likely to say their household suffered a job disruption due to childcare needs since the start of the pandemic. They also revealed that the disruption had a major impact on their family’s finances and stress level.

While some studies are being done to monitor the impact of vaccination among children, health experts are calling for more. Due to the fact that children being vaccinated and boosted is the best way to prevent illness and school outbreaks, it’s crucial to know who is getting vaccinated and when. A lack of vaccination data also prevents school districts from making informed decisions when it comes to outreach and safety.

“We’re making sweeping decisions across these very diverse school districts about policies,” said Dr. Rebekah Fenton, a pediatrician and adolescent medicine fellow at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “Assuming that it’s safe to determine because of high vaccination rates among parents or children themselves, without recognizing the unique needs of certain communities in particular schools.”

More data can also prevent Black and Hispanic children from being left behind in vaccination efforts.

“Without that information, we would potentially get to this place where if COVID was doing well in the larger communities, that smaller communities such as Black and brown individuals will just get looked over,” she said.

A modeling study revealed that 318,981 COVID-19 deaths could have been prevented if the U.S. had reached 100 percent COVID-19 vaccine primary series coverage, all the more reason why the CDC is also strengthening its recommendation that those 12 and older who are immunocompromised and those 50 and older should receive a second booster dose at least four months after their first booster dose.

Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Stanford University, believes outreach messaging needs to highlight the severity of illness that children can face if they contract the virus and haven’t received their booster shot.

“I don’t think people take the disease seriously in kids,” Maldonado said. “We just need to keep getting that message out that children should be safe. And if we can keep them safe, why not keep them safe?”

The effects of long COVID are also relatively unknown, and there is no telling what impact it could have on a child in the long run. A child being unvaccinated ups the chances of complications in the present, and potentially in the future.

“We don’t know the long-term impact of COVID on our bodies. We are starting to see that now, since it’s been two years,” Dr. Donna White Carey told L.A. Focus. “For example, the spurt of hepatitis around the world. Half of the kids in the studies who have died of hepatitis have tested positive for coronavirus in the past.”

While children aren’t experiencing the same death rate as adults, the long-term impact of COVID on children is just as worrisome and could be harder to trace in the early stages.

“Kids may not have the vocabulary to say that they have a headache everyday, or that they’re feeling tired, unfocused or unable to concentrate. But we know that kids are having memory issues and don’t have the same level of energy that they used to,” Carey said.

She believes we have a long way to go when it comes to effectively executing outreach efforts and making the best decisions to lessen positive cases, specifically amongst children.

“We need to have a lot more open forums for our parents to come and talk to professionals and get their questions answered, especially in the Black community,” she said. “We need to get back to basics. I know wearing masks is annoying, but I want to stay around. And I don’t want to be sick.”

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) is urging every child who is eligible to get boosted, as it remains the best way to prevent hospitalization or death from COVID-19. Californians are also being encouraged to follow the state’s SMARTER Steps plan, which includes continuing to wear a mask and getting tested when necessary, in order to continue to protect themselves and their loved ones.


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