By Sylvia Garcia-Houchins, MSN, RN, Director, Infection Prevention and Control
The approval of the Pfizer vaccine for ages 12+ was met with a great deal of enthusiasm from the medical community, and with trepidation from some parents of young teens.
The latest poll from the Kaiser Foundation on May 6 surveyed parents of children ages 12-15 and found approximately:
- 25% will “wait and see” how the vaccine is working
- 18% will get their children vaccinated if required by schools
- 25% will not pursue vaccination for their children
As a parent and grandparent, I completely understand why parents want to wait and see. I asked my kids, who are frontline care providers, not to volunteer for the COVID-19 vaccine trials. We had heated conversations about not rushing into them being vaccinated too soon. They countered that their work could not only put them at risk but could also put me, my husband, 6-month-old granddaughter and 91-year-old father at risk. They were watching people of all ages die and wanted to do anything to protect their loved ones.
By the time the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) was approved, two of my four children had contracted COVID. We were terrified both times and lucky that only one of my children has suffered apparent residual effects, now known as “long-haul COVID.” I could have lost one of my children! My remaining two children were vaccinated as soon as the EUA was approved and the vaccine was available to them. The rest of us have been vaccinated to protect my granddaughter who cannot be vaccinated because of age.
As someone who has spent an entire career in infection prevention, I have no doubts about the safety of this vaccine for the approved age groups. The risk benefit analysis is clear. The vaccine protects not only the recipient but those who are around them who cannot be vaccinated – a key issue if you have children or are the guardian of children under the vaccination age.
Misunderstanding of the Effect of COVID-19 on Children
The risk of COVID-19 in children is significant. There seems to be somewhat of a disconnect on this. While it was reassuring to hear at the beginning of the pandemic that children were not susceptible to COVID-19, we have learned that this is not the case. Despite reports of increased numbers of COVID cases in children – especially older than 10 years old – many people continue to cling to the notion that “COVID doesn’t affect kids in a severe way” and as a result don’t see the importance of vaccinating their children.
Studies have consistently shown that children, adolescents and young adults are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infections. Children and adolescents have had lower incidence and fewer severe COVID-19 outcomes than adults.
From March 1, 2020 through April 30, 2021, approximately 1.5 million COVID-19 cases in kids 11 to 17 years of age have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Young teens aren’t immune to long-haul COVID and at least five U.S. hospitals opened pediatric long-haul clinics, according to this CBS News report.
Multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) remains a threat as well. It can be frightening because it affects many children who previously had COVID-19 with mild symptoms. Much is still unknown about this condition, but many affected children have had severe inflammation in the:
- blood vessels
- digestive system
Although rare, prolonged hospitalization and deaths of children from COVID-19 occur. It is heartbreaking to see parents on the news talking about their seemingly healthy child succumbing to COVID in just a few days. These stories terrified my brother and put my nephew at the front of the line of children being vaccinated.
We are very lucky that the risk of COVID-19 can all be avoided in 12-15 year olds. After testing volunteers in this age group, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported that the Pfizer vaccine is 100% effective in preventing COVID-19 – making it virtually impossible for these vaccinated children to develop COVID or COVID-related MIS-C, or even death from COVID.
Risk of Myocarditis
In recent days, the CDC’s advisory panel acknowledged reports of teens and young adults who experienced myocarditis, usually about four days after receiving the second COVID-19 vaccine. Myocarditis occurs when heart muscles become inflamed and have difficulty pumping blood. This condition is caused by viral infections (including COVID-19) but also can develop as a reaction to a vaccine. Many times, myocarditis resolves on its own without treatment, but heart failure can occur in severe cases.
That said, this is still very rare. The CDC is emphasizing that these reports do not exceed cases of myocarditis in a regular, non-COVID year.
Bottom line: myocarditis could result from the COVID-19 vaccine ; however, the risk of contracting COVID-19 is still far greater than that of myocarditis!
Debunking Fertility Rumors
Additionally, I want to address rumors that the COVID-19 vaccine affects fertility, as it’s a common reason parents are citing for hesitating to vaccinate teens.
Myths on fertility have surrounded almost every vaccine, including the flu vaccine. However, there is currently no evidence that any vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, cause fertility problems.
Since the vaccine rollout, thousands of women have become pregnant and are well on their way to delivering healthy babies. My own daughter-in-law is expecting my next grandchild in November – less than a year after being vaccinated.
Again, as a parent and grandparent, I completely understand the inclination to be extra cautious when it comes to kids and vaccines. I even appreciate that many moms and dads may eagerly take the vaccine themselves but hold off when it comes to their kids.
This time, it’s more important than ever to really look at the facts. I encourage you to check out The Joint Commission’s dedicated website for consumers to learn more about the vaccine. The fears surrounding this vaccine for teens and preteens are unsubstantiated, but the threat of COVID-19 infection is very real.
Sylvia Garcia-Houchins is the director of Infection Prevention and Control in the Division of Healthcare Improvement at The Joint Commission. Garcia-Houchins has over 30 years of experience in infection control in both hospital and long-term care settings, as well as eight years of clinical microbiology experience. Most recently, she served as the director of Infection Control at the University of Chicago Medicine and was also an intermittent consultant for Joint Commission Resources, Inc.