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‘In your heart, it does tug at you.’ Parents weighing COVID-19 vaccines for kids 5-11 must first battle their own anxiety

Many parents, including some who have never questioned the safety of other childhood vaccines, are conflicted about giving COVID-19 shots to their youngest kids.

A 5-year-old kidney transplant patient was vaccinated at Children's National Hospital in Washington on Wednesday. Many parents are torn over the vaccine decision.Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

Eager. Not a chance. Maybe, but not right away.

The emotions and opinions from parents of young children who are now eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine are running strong and across the spectrum, from all-in to adamantly opposed. Many are eager to sign their kids up, while others, nervous about the flood of facts and fiction on social media, are swamping pediatricians’ offices with requests for information and reassurance.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tuesday night approved the recommendation of its expert advisers to proceed with Pfizer pediatric shots for children ages 5 to 11. That cleared the way for 28 million youngsters, including about 515,000 in Massachusetts, to receive the two-dose regimen, which will be a third of the amount given to adults.


“You want to trust the science,” said Keri Rodrigues, founder of Massachusetts Parents United, an organization that primarily lobbies on education issues. “But as a parent, in your heart, it does tug at you.”

Rodrigues, known as an outspoken parent organizer, is a Somerville mom who has grappled with vaccinating her two sons, 9 and 10, against COVID. She has always vaccinated her children but worries that, years from now, there may be some long-term complication from the COVID shots not yet detected. Doctors say that is highly unlikely and has not happened with other vaccines.

Rodrigues, a single mother who relies on the boys’ grandmother and great-grandfather to help care for her sons, worries the boys may inadvertently infect them, and that helped her decide: The boys will get their COVID shots.

“I will trust in the science,” Rodrigues said. “But it does make me nervous.”

Science advisers to the CDC concluded the benefits of vaccinating young children outweigh the very small risks from the shots. They said that while there have been some cases of heart inflammation, known as myocarditis, in teens and young adults traced to the vaccine, there have been many more such cases in unvaccinated young people who were infected with COVID.


Dr. Lloyd Fisher, a Worcester pediatrician and president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said about 30 percent of the parents calling his office are already seeking the kids’ shots, and another 30 percent are “extremely resistant.”

The rest, about 40 percent, aren’t sure.

“Those are the ones we focus on,” Fisher said. ”They probably want to give their child the shot, but they want to be reassured they are doing the right thing.”

Historically, Massachusetts has one of the highest rates in the country for established childhood vaccines, from polio to pertussis. And CDC data show it also has one of the highest rates for COVID vaccinations among people 12 and older, trailing only Vermont and Connecticut.

Fisher said many parents with hesitations about the COVID vaccine mention the fact that younger children are far less likely to have a severe case of the disease.

“So it’s a reasonable question, if my child at 7 or 8 years old is at very low risk of being hospitalized or dying from this virus, why would I want them to have a vaccine?” he said. “And I tell them that their child is at very low risk, but a risk of a severe vaccine side effect is even lower.”


Still, Kelly Horton, a Bedford mother of two sons now eligible for shots, ages 7 and 9, is uneasy.

“We are not rushing to be the first in line for [a vaccine for] a virus that our kids are not greatly impacted by, nor are they at risk of severe disease,” she said.

“There are still a lot of unknowns,” Horton added. “I would like to see more data before making a decision.”

Dr. Shannon Scott-Vernaglia, a pediatrician at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, said she finds that listening to parents and sharing personal experiences helps them make decisions they are comfortable with.

The story she often shares is about her husband’s grandfather, who lived through the 1918 influenza pandemic and later developed Parkinson’s disease. More recent research has suggested that people born during the time of that flu outbreak had a two- to three-fold increased risk of developing Parkinson’s than those born prior to 1888 or after 1924.

Scott-Vernaglia said her family often wonders whether his Parkinson’s was a long-term consequence of that influenza pandemic.

She compares that phenomenon to parents’ anxieties today that COVID vaccines might have long-term complications, while forgetting to consider potential complications from COVID itself.

“I know there is so much uncertainty about what it means for kids who get COVID. We don’t know what will happen for those kids in 20, 30, or 50 years,” she said. “But the short- and medium-term safety data of the COVID shot is incredibly reassuring, so for me that makes it an easy decision.”


Additionally, doctors say, vaccines don’t typically have long-term side effects.

Dr. Caroline Castleforte, a pediatrician at East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, said she, too, is hearing from parents who are hesitant about the vaccine for their young children. And, like Scott-Vernaglia, she also shares her experiences.

She tells them about teens she has treated who had mild COVID cases and then, months later, came back with trouble breathing, and it turns out they developed mild heart inflammation from the infection. Others, she said, still haven’t recovered their sense of smell or taste.

“I always try to tell parents the risk of getting COVID is far greater statistically than the potential long-term complications of the vaccine,” she said.

And then there is Chelsea, a community pummeled by the disease in the early months of the pandemic. La Colaborativa, a community service group, anticipated vaccine hesitation and got in front of it, holding conversations and focus groups with parents to gauge their hopes and fears weeks ago.

Dinanyili Paulino, the organization’s chief operations officer, said the group ordered the pediatric shots and thought they would be authorized in time for a vaccine clinic this past Tuesday. So La Colaborativa advertised a session at a food bank in the city. A half hour before the clinic was slated to open, at least two dozen parents and their children had lined up.

“We found the majority wanted to vaccinate their kids for multiple reasons, because they lost someone, or they don’t believe their children are wearing masks in schools correctly ... or their neighbors got sick and their loved ones passed away,” Paulino said. “COVID devastated this small city. They don’t want to go through that again.”


The families in line were each given food baskets, Paulino said, and assurance that the shots would be there next Tuesday.

Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.