Now that both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have green-lighted Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine for emergency use in kids ages 12 to 15, pediatricians will soon find themselves on the front lines of the country's vaccination efforts, playing an essential role in communicating to parents the safety and importance of getting their kids the shot.
That's a tall order for pediatricians who say they're facing skyrocketing vaccine hesitancy among families.
"It's not like I can just send out a big message that says, 'Everybody get your flu shot!'" said Dr. Natasha Burgert, a pediatrician in Overland Park, Kansas, and a national spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "It's hard, especially for those of us who are communicating with these families every day."
While it's true that young people are not likely to get very sick from Covid-19, they can still harbor the virus and spread it to others. As of May 6, more than 3.8 million cases of Covid-19 had been reported in children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. That's about 14 percent of all U.S. cases.
Still, according to a recent pollfrom a research consortium called the Covid States Project, nearly half of surveyed parents said they didn't plan on getting their kids the Covid-19 vaccination. Many of those opposed to the vaccine cited worries that the shots are not safe.
It's pediatricians who must address those concerns.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, doctors say, because families tend to stay with one pediatrician for years, developing trust along the way. And pediatricians are incredibly well-versed in the safety and importance of all childhood vaccines.
"This is the office where you've taken your child since they were born," said Dr. Sonja O'Leary, medical director of the Denver Health School-Based Health Centers. "With the Covid vaccine, parents are going to have lots of questions about vaccinating their children. Hearing the answers from someone they've trusted for their child's whole life could be very impactful."
Currently, answering questions about the vaccines may be one of the few things pediatricians can do, as shots are not yet available in their offices. Burgert said it's impossible for her private practice to order and store a large quantity of the Pfizer vaccine — though that would be the best-case scenario, as it would allow kids to get the shot in a familiar environment from someone they know and trust.
"Pediatricians are experts in vaccine communication, delivery and administration," Burgert said. Still, even without her own supply, Burgert is focused on guiding families to other Covid-19 vaccination sites, including local children's hospitals, pharmacies, health departments and school-based clinics.
Not all families need a pediatrician's guidance, however.
Janet Kinzey, of Athens, Georgia, signed up her 15-year-old son, Zachary, for the vaccine as soon as possible Tuesday — eager to get him back to some semblance of normalcy.
"My son hasn't been inside a classroom in over a year. He's barely seen his friends," Kinzey said. "Today was the first big step back toward a normal life again for him."
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Dr. Clark Denniston, a family physician and associate professor of family medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the patients he worries will forgo the vaccines are the ones who don't come in for appointments, or even to ask questions, to begin with.
Denniston and his team in Chapel Hill have been working proactively, reaching out to parents about getting the Covid-19 vaccinations for their kids via a web portal, as well as mailings sent the old-fashioned way.
And he's altering the way he communicates with families.
"Thirty-five years ago, we were trained not to share our own personal experiences with patients," Denniston said. "But it really does humanize it for them when my patients hear me say, 'I got the vaccine, my wife got the vaccine, my 90-year-old father got the vaccine.'"
"It's a way of connecting with patients that makes my recommendation a little more trustworthy," he said.