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Why even some vaccinated parents aren't planning to rush to give kids Covid shot

“I’m not opposed to vaccinating them in the future, maybe, but right now my husband and I are not comfortable with the data,” one parent said.
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Sarah Beth Burwick, a lawyer in Los Angeles, said she and her husband both got their Covid-19 vaccinations at “the earliest possible opportunity” and their two children received all of their childhood vaccinations “on the schedule, without even questioning it." 

But she's not planning to rush out to get the children, ages 5 and 2, vaccinated against Covid, even though one of them could be eligible as soon as next week.

“There would need to be information out there to convince us it was necessary first," Burwick, 37, said. “I would say I think it’s unnecessary. And I’m uncomfortable with how quickly it’s rolling out with such a small study."

As the Food and Drug Administration prepares in the coming days to authorize emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 5 to 11, some parents say they don't plan to be first in line to get their children vaccinated.

It’s not that they are skeptical of vaccines as a rule — pointing out that they got the Covid vaccination themselves and have previously immunized their kids against other diseases — but they have fears, questions and hesitation about giving the Covid vaccination to their children immediately.

They have concerns about the size of the vaccine trial for children, the amount of long-term safety data available, and the potential for side effects (including the rare heart condition myocarditis). They also question whether the vaccine should be given to children when the risk of serious complications from Covid in kids remains low. 

Michelle Goebel, 36, an engineer and mother of three in Carlsbad, California, said she, her husband and their parents have all been vaccinated against Covid “because we understand the age-stratified risk.” 

Students begin the Fall semester of school in Long Beach.
Kindergarten students line up for class in the Long Beach Unified School District in Long Beach, Calif., on Aug. 31, 2021.Brittany Murray / MediaNews Group via Getty Images

Her children, ages 9, 6 and 3, are fully up to date with their vaccinations, she said, and “even got their flu shots last week.” But she is not ready to vaccinate her children if a Covid vaccine for them were to be given emergency use authorization.

“I’m not opposed to vaccinating them in the future, maybe, but right now my husband and I are not comfortable with the data,” she said. “I need more numbers. I want to see any reported reactions as the numbers increase. I think I would like at least a year out from the trial data to follow up with those original participants to just make sure nothing popped up basically.”

Just over 1,500 children ages 5 to 11 received the vaccine in the Pfizer trial (another 750 received a placebo).

Side effects of the vaccination included sore arms, fever and muscle aches. However, the FDA said that Pfizer’s trial wasn’t large enough to detect extremely rare side effects, including myocarditis that’s been observed after the second dose, particularly in younger men and teenage boys. There were no cases of myocarditis in the trial of young children.

Goebel said she takes particular issue with California's plan to become the first U.S. state to require Covid vaccinations for children to attend schools in person, potentially impacting millions of students. 

“I’m totally for approving a vaccine for them and making it a parental and pediatrician choice based on a child’s risk profile or comorbidities,” she said, but she believes “our state is rushing it when we don’t mandate flu vaccines for kids.”

Bryan Longmire, a parent in southeast Texas, told NBC affiliate KBMT he wouldn’t want to put anything in his child’s body “that wasn’t completely necessary.”

He said that while making vaccines available at school is a good idea for some parents, he hopes it remains an option for families.

“If it gets to the point where they try to institute a mandate or anything like that, then I’ll probably have issues with that,” Longmire said. “It’s to each their own. Do whatever you have to do to protect your family and if you feel that a vaccine is necessary for that, then I think it’s fine.”

More than 1.9 million children ages 5 to 11 have tested positive for the coronavirus, and more than 8,400 have been hospitalized, officials said. Nearly 100 have died.

Polling suggests an uphill battle to convince parents about the vaccine for young children. Only a third of parents said they would immediately seek vaccinations for kids 5 to 11, according to Kaiser Family Foundation polling.

And whether children receive a dose of a Covid vaccine will often depend on where they call home, as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data analyzed by NBC News revealed that stark regional disparities in vaccination rates for children already eligible are deepening across the country.

Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccine researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a member of the FDA advisory committee that voted Tuesday to recommend Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid vaccine for emergency use authorization for those ages 5 to 11, acknowledged the difficulty of the decision.

“It’s always nerve-wracking, I think, when you’re asked to make a decision for millions of children based on studies of only a few thousand children,” he said. “The question is, when do you know enough? And I think we certainly know that there are many children between 5 and 11 years of age who are susceptible to this disease who could very well be sick and are hospitalized or die from it."

Dr. Wendy Hasson, medical director of the pediatric intensive care unit at Randall Children’s Hospital in Portland, Oregon, said that as the parent of a 3-year-old boy, she's been closely following the vaccine trial for children and paying particular attention to potential heart issues.

She pointed to information from the CDC that “most patients with myocarditis or pericarditis who received care responded well to medicine and rest and felt better quickly.”

“But we know that Covid-19 can affect the heart of all age groups, and that that can cause long-lasting effects,” she said. “So for me, when making this decision for my own child, I feel very comfortable taking on that very small risk of vaccine-induced myocarditis in order to protect my child against the risk of having more severe complications from Covid-19.”

For parents who do have concerns and are weighing the risks and benefits, Hasson, who is also a fellow with the American Academy of Pediatrics, said they should consult their pediatricians and ask themselves questions such as: Does my child or other people in the household have any underlying risk factors for severe Covid? Are there people in my family who cannot respond well to the vaccine due to being immunocompromised? What is my community doing to protect my child (considering factors such as local vaccination rates and local rates of Covid transmission)? Is my school taking any precautions, such as mask use and physical distancing? And how does it affect my family when my child has to quarantine due to a school exposure?

“I think one of the jobs we have as pediatricians is making sure that we’re prepared to answer those questions, because what I’m really hoping parents will do is take those concerns that are appropriate and then ask or seek out information to help alleviate those concerns,” said Dr. Jennifer Kusma, an attending physician with the division of advanced general pediatrics and primary care at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

She said having concerns over making medical decisions for your child is normal.

Julie Hamill, a lawyer and mother of three in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., said she plans to talk with her children’s doctor before making a decision but is fearful of vaccine mandates for school children. She and her husband are vaccinated, and her children are also up to date on all of their vaccines.

“I feel like for me at my age, the risks and benefits weigh in favor of me being vaccinated,” said Hamill, 38, whose children are 2, 5 and 7. 

“This is a question, I think, for our pediatrician, above all else. We will speak to our pediatrician and that’s who we take our medical advice from,” she said.

But she also worries medical professionals may feel pressure to recommend vaccinations. 

“It’s something that seems so unnecessary based on the risk level. I guess one thing that would change my mind is if we started seeing data showing that massive amounts of children were being severely sickened or dying. That would change my mind. Absolutely. But the data we are seeing isn’t showing that.”

Hamill said she is not “completely closed off” to the idea of vaccinating her children.

“I definitely will continue to listen to my doctor and read the data and follow what’s going on,” she said. 

Kusma said pediatricians “are really looking out for what’s best for kids” and combing through the data and “all the literature that comes our way to make sure that we’re helping parents make the best choice for their kid.” 

“This vaccine we really believe to be safe from all this data and that it really has gone through just as rigorous of trials as any other vaccine,” she said.

Goebel hopes there will be understanding for parents such as herself and ultimately the ability for families to choose.

“We have assessed the risk-benefit profile and are comfortable allowing our kids to remain unvaccinated,” she said. “I know that there are a lot of parents ready to jump in line for the 5- to 11-year-olds based on their anxiety level. So, I feel like if we allow the nervous parents of the 5- to 11-year-olds to get in line and get their kids vaccinated, we should allow the flip side, the parents that are comfortable as is to remain that way. At least for now.”