Will FL families rush to vaccinate children below 12 against COVID? Or will they be hesitant?

Schools for decades have required certain vaccines for even the youngest children to enter classrooms, but COVID vaccines aren’t on that list yet

By: and - August 25, 2021 7:00 am

Miami Children’s Hospital doctor administering a vaccine. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

With federal health officials thinking about a new age span for vaccinations — shots to kids below age 12  — families are now confronting questions about whether vaccines would be safe and necessary for elementary-level students.

Kids in PreK and elementary schools would have to rely on their parents for consent to get the shots for protection against COVID-19  — a decision not taken lightly for many Florida families.

So far, kids under the age of 12 haven’t been authorized to receive shots, and the timeline for when a COVID vaccine will be approved for the youngest kids isn’t entirely unclear.

That said, the American Academy of Pediatrics sent a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in early August, urging authorization for safe and effective COVID vaccines for children under age 12 “as swiftly as possible so that children of all ages can benefit from them.”

More recently, the FDA fully approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which could result in more confidence among Americans who remain uncertain about the vaccines.

And Dr. Anthony Fauci and U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy have said that it’s possible that kids under 12 could get a COVID vaccine shot before the end of 2021, according to HuffPost.

Still, a national survey shows that many parents remain skeptical about their children receiving COVID-19 shots, even though proof of vaccination to protect against a variety of other diseases is already a requirement for children to enroll at schools across the county.

Schools already require kids to get vaccines 

In fact, children in Florida are required to get several vaccinations before entering school and day care facilities for younger kids. 

The Florida Department of Health outlines several vaccines needed to enter public and non-public preschools and schools to protect children against diseases including measles, Hepatitis B, whooping cough, tetanus, polio, chicken pox and other diseases.

Parents can receive an exemption from the vaccination requirement for school-aged children for a medical reason or for religious reasons, according to the state agency. 

“I think it would be at least years down the road before I’d let him have the (COVID) vaccine,” Caroline Gillis told the Phoenix. She is an elementary science and math teacher at Heritage Trails in Leon County, in the state capital, and is the mother of a 2 1/2 year old son. 

“It (COVID vaccine) felt rushed to me,” she told the Phoenix. “And my son is so young. Still developing into a human being so I don’t want to give him something that’s untested and could possibly affect him for the rest of his life.”

And she’s not alone.

According to a public opinion survey on COVID vaccines by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 40 percent of United States parents with children under 12 years old will “wait and see” to get their child vaccinated once a vaccine is authorized for children that age. 

The survey, part of a research project called the “COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor,”  received responses from 1,197 families with children under the age of 12 from across the United States. Overall, 523 parents had children under five years old and 674 parents had children between the ages of 5 and 11.

The survey results show that for parents of children in the 5-11 category, 26 percent would get their child vaccinated “right away” when one is approved for this age range.

Although the KFF survey didn’t include reasons as to why parents with kids in that age group remain hesitant to get their children inoculated, it did include responses from parents of unvaccinated kids aged 12-17, who are eligible for vaccines.

Some skeptics have cited a variety of concerns, such as potential side effects and a lack of research on vaccines among children. Even some parents said they aren’t concerned about their child contracting COVID, according to the survey.

Kaiser didn’t include the names of those parents but documented their responses.

For instance, when asked about the “main reason your child has not gotten” vaccinated, a white mother in Florida said, “Potential side effects outweigh risk of even contracting COVID,” adding that her child “will definitely” not get vaccinated.

Another white Florida mom said she’s doesn’t feel COVID is a threat to her daughter.  “I haven’t really been concerned about her getting the virus and she hasn’t really been concerned about getting it,” she said, adding that she “will only get child vaccinated if required.”

A Black mom in Delaware said there’s “not enough information on how it affects children,” therefore, she will “wait and see” before getting her child vaccinated.

Sarah Matlow, mother of a six-year-old son and a three-month-old son in Leon County, is eager for her kids to get vaccinated for COVID-19. She told the Phoenix that she had “no concerns” about the COVID vaccine for her kids.

“Kids are smart and they know what’s going on,” she told the Phoenix over a Facebook message. “It’s heartbreaking when my 6-year-old son pleads to get vaccinated and we have to tell them he can’t yet.”

“We are looking forward to the time when our kids are eligible for vaccination. Vaccines are the way we are going to get ahead of this virus— sadly, many families have already lost children to COVID-19.”

What’s on the horizon

Currently, the Pfizer vaccine, which was fully approved by the FDA as of Monday for use by everyone 16 and older, is the only COVID vaccine approved for minors. The FDA still has emergency authorization for the Pfizer vaccine for those aged 12 to 15, according to the agency’s press release.

Dr. Mobeen Rathore, a pediatrician at the University of Florida Health in Jacksonville, is urging parents to get their children vaccinated as soon as possible, warning that kids have been admitted to hospitals due to severe illness.

“I think it’s extremely important that the children get a vaccine,” Rathore said in a phone interview with the Phoenix. 

But a vaccine may not become available to kids under 12 until around Thanksgiving, Rathore said. “The conventional wisdom is it will happen around Thanksgiving. So it’s possible it may come sooner. If they can expedite the process that would be good,” he said.

“Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation. It is true that the kids don’t get as sick as adults. But this virus doesn’t discriminate against anyone. We do know that the young people do get infected and they can still get long-term complications from COVID.”

Rathore also explained that UF Health will be participating in a Moderna vaccine trial for kids 6-12 years of age.

Around 300 kids are already on a waiting list for the vaccine trial, Rathore said, adding that parents have expressed interest in getting vaccines for their young children because of the spike in COVID cases. 

“As parents are hearing about the surge, it seems like a lot are on the waiting list,” he said. 

Carlanita Hollis, a parent of a 10-year-old in Tallahassee, told the Phoenix she plans to get her son vaccinated after mounting concerns about the threat from COVID mutations including the Delta variant. 

At first, Hollis said she was reluctant to get her son vaccinated because of the quick rollout of the vaccine.

The Delta variant, first identified in India, has become the predominant strain in the United States and is more transmissible than previous strains, according to federal health officials. 

“Can we please get the little children taken care of?” Hollis said. 

Hollis pointed out that her son’s school district in Leon County has been notifying parents about COVID cases at the schools. 

The right decision

Chief of Infectious Diseases Dr. Kenneth Alexander at Nemours Children’s Hospital located in Orlando says that vaccinating kids for COVID will be the “right decision” for children, their families, and their communities. 

Not only will the vaccine help protect kids from catching COVID, it will also help keep children from passing COVID on to family members now that school is back in session. 

“These exposures are especially intense in school districts with low rates of mask use,” he explained in an email to the Phoenix. “Children are acquiring COVID-19 and then bringing it home to adult family members.  While we can anticipate that vaccinated adult family members will have mild disease, unvaccinated adult family members are at risk of severe COVID-19.”

Alexander noted that children should be vaccinated to protect other adults they interact with, such as teachers, childcare providers, coaches and neighbors.

Caroline Gillis, the Leon teacher who plans to wait some time to vaccinate her two-year-old son, told the Phoenix that she would like the students in her classroom to be vaccinated.

“I don’t prefer it for my kid, but I would prefer it for my classroom,” she said. “For kids, I would say, 10 and up to have it.”

Andrea Messina, executive director for the Florida School Boards Association, said that Florida school districts may consider having a COVID vaccine requirement for students.

“I have not heard that anyone has moved forward with that conversation, yet, but I expect that when a vaccine becomes available for that age group, there will be parents who even ask for that,” she told the Phoenix.

“So I am confident that the boards will have conversations around that, including community input.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.

Issac Morgan
Issac Morgan

Issac Morgan is a 2009 graduate of Florida A&M University's School of Journalism, and a proud native of Tallahassee. He has covered city council and community events at the Gadsden County Times, worked as a sports news assistant at the Tallahassee Democrat, a communications specialist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and as a proofreader at the Florida Law Weekly.