Houston-area health experts hope COVID-19 vaccine expansion breaks through apathy – Houston Chronicle

Evelyn Mayfield, 8, looks up as she receives a COVID-19 vaccination from Staysha Hampton, LVN, during a city-wide vaccination clinic at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021 in Houston. Amid delays in FDA approval, Pfizer has said it does not expect shots to be available for children under age 5 until April 2022 at the earliest.
When Pfizer announced in late December that its COVID-19 vaccine for kids under the age of 5 had failed in clinical trials, Dr. Caitlin Sutton was torn.
“As a mom I was super bummed and disheartened, but as a doctor I’m glad the trials are so diligent,” said Sutton, a Texas Children’s Pavilion for Women anesthesiologist.
Sutton and other parents eager to vaccinate their young children became hopeful again when federal regulators set a special meeting on Tuesday to review Pfizer’s modified pediatric vaccine. But days before the meeting, the parents were dealt another disheartening setback with the news that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration wanted to push it back to gather more data on a third dose. Now, the shots are not expected to become available until April at the earliest.
Pfizer has said its low-dose vaccine is safe for children under 5, but trials have yet to prove it works. While the back-and-forth developments have triggered anxiety among some parents, a majority may not take advantage of the vaccine’s availability upon authorization.
Nationally, only 31 percent of children in the 5- to-11-year-old age group have received at least one dose by Feb. 11, more than three months after it became available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Harris County, only 18 percent of children ages 5 to 9 — the youngest category on the county’s COVID dashboard — are fully vaccinated.
“I’m very dismayed by (those figures),” said Dr. Michael Chang, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at UTHealth and Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. “For these individual kids, the vaccines are still the most effective way to prevent illness and hospitalization. It’s unfortunate that more parents aren’t taking advantage of this.”
Despite persistent vaccine hesitancy among parents of young children, the omicron surge generated some fresh enthusiasm, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study. Thirty-one percent of parents of children under 5 say they’ll get their child vaccinated right away when a vaccine is authorized, up from 20 percent last July. Another 29 percent say they will “wait and see” before seeking out the shot, down from 40 percent in July. And a quarter of parents say they will “definitely not” vaccinate their young child.
Although children make up a small percentage of COVID hospitalizations and deaths, they still run the risk of developing long-term complications that linger beyond the COVID infection.
A study published last month by the CDC found children and adolescents were more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes more than 30 days after a COVID infection, compared to those without COVID and those with pre-pandemic respiratory infections.
A national study in the United Kingdom found that 7 to 8 percent of children with COVID reported symptoms more than three months after diagnosis. And scientists are still studying the link between COVID and MIS-C, a conditions that inflames the organs, most commonly seen in children who have been exposed to the virus.
Dr. James Versalovic, chief pathologist at Texas Children’s Hospital and director of Texas Children’s Microbiome Center, said the hospital system has identified nearly 300 cases of MIS-C during the pandemic and expects more in the coming months. More than half of those patients have required ICU care, he said.
Versalovic emphasized the importance of vaccinating children with underlying illnesses who remain especially vulnerable to the virus.
“We’ve seen a greater proportion of children under 5 now impacted during the omicron surge because they have had no vaccine available,” he said, adding that up to 40 percent of hospitalized children fell into that age group at one point.
“This delay in terms of the FDA review is in no way dampening our enthusiasm for the vaccine,” he said. “If anything, it’s just strengthening the argument for vaccination.”
julian.gill@chron.com / nora.mishanec@chron.com
Nora Mishanec is a Hearst fellow for the Houston Chronicle.
She previously worked on the breaking news team at The San Francisco Chronicle, and as a reporter at The Register-Star, the nation’s second-oldest newspaper.
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