Katherine Haenschen told her 2-year-old son they will both be crying at the next visit to the pediatrician — the boy, because he’ll get stuck with a needle, and the mom because she’ll be overjoyed to finally protect him from COVID-19.
“We put our children in car seats. We put safety covers over electrical outlets,” she said. “This is another piece of doing the best we can to protect our children.”
But in her eagerness to vaccinate her child, Haenschen, a Northeastern University professor who lives in Brookline, may be in the minority among parents.
As the long-awaited and newly authorized COVID-19 vaccines for children 6 months through 5 years old start arriving in the state this week, it remains an open question whether parents will leap at the chance to vaccinate their kids.
A survey in April by the Kaiser Family Foundation found only about one in five planned to vaccinate their child as soon as the vaccine became available.
And that’s about what Dr. Lloyd Fisher, a Worcester pediatrician, expects from his patient population. He ordered enough vaccine for 20 percent of them, and the doses arrived Monday morning.
That 20 percent have been anxiously waiting for the shot and will get it as soon as they can, he said. For others, the process will be slower. “It’s probably going to require one-on-one conversations between the parents and the child’s pediatrician,” said Fisher, who is president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The younger the child, the deeper parents’ concerns about safety, and parents know that the virus’s risk to young children is much lower, he said.
Some parents may agree with Brendan Price, who says he’s not anti-vaccine but doesn’t see a need to get his kids a COVID-19 shot. His whole family had COVID-19 and got over it easily; the virus, in its current variants, doesn’t seem very dangerous to children, and he’s read articles describing the vaccine’s low effectiveness against infection.
His 4-year-old is newly eligible, but his older kids, ages 6 and 7, also haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19, although they’ve received other childhood vaccinations.
Fisher, the pediatrician, said that Price is “absolutely right” about the low risk to most children.
“The problem is, we don’t know which child is going to be the unlucky one who does get severe illness,” he said. Many other vaccines prevent illnesses for which the risk of death is low, such as chickenpox, but it’s considered worth lowering the risk even further with a vaccine.
“Now that we have a safe vaccine, why wouldn’t we want to offer that to children, to make a low risk even lower?” he said. Although the vaccine often does not prevent people from getting infected, “the vaccine has continued to be exceptionally effective at preventing severe illness and death.”
Fisher is especially grateful to have the vaccine available for parents at the other end of the risk-assessment spectrum — those who have severely limited their children’s interactions with others out of fear of infection. “It’s a small number,” he said. “There are parents who are just fearful to allow their child to have a normal childhood. I’m hoping this vaccine will give them some peace of mind, and allow their children to interact with other kids.”
Unlike Fisher, Dr. Christopher Garofalo, an Attleboro family practice doctor, said the parents in his practice are “definitely eager to get the vaccine” for their young children.
“Even though the children are at lower risk, we’ve seen and heard enough about long COVID. Parents still don’t want kids to get it,” he said.
But Garofalo doesn’t expect to provide the vaccine in his practice. Manufacturers are packing them in 10-dose vials because of a shortage of the glass containers needed to make individual doses. The 10 doses have to be used within a day or discarded. Garofalo worries that he wouldn’t be able to administer all the doses on any given day and doesn’t want to have to throw out vaccine.
An estimated 320,000 Massachusetts children are in the newly eligible group. Two vaccines are available and recommended: The two-dose Moderna vaccine, for children 6 months through 5 years old, and the three-dose series by Pfizer-BioNTech, for children 6 months through 4 years old. (Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine has been available to children ages 5 and older since last fall.)
The Baker administration said that vaccines for children are available at hundreds of locations, including pediatricians’ offices, pharmacies, and local clinics. People can start making appointments for young children on Tuesday by going to https://vaxfinder.mass.gov. Additional locations and appointments are expected to come online over the course of the week.
Additionally, state-sponsored vaccination sites continue to operate primarily in the hardest-hit communities, and they will vaccinate this age group, as well. To find these sites, go to VaxFinder and check the box labeled “State-Sponsored Vaccination Site.”
Pharmacies are gearing up to provide the vaccine, although by law, pharmacists generally cannot vaccinate children younger than 3.
CVS, however, runs in-house medical clinics, called MinuteClinics, which are staffed by nurses, nurse practitioners, or physician associates (also known as physician assistants). Starting Tuesday, a spokesperson said, the MinuteClinics will administer the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to children 18 months through 4 years old. Older children can continue to be vaccinated at the pharmacies.
A spokesperson for Rite Aid said on Monday that some of the company’s pharmacy locations would administer the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to children 3 and older after shipments arrive later this week.
Saad Dinno, president of the Massachusetts Pharmacists Association, said he expects the large pharmacy chains to vaccinate children under 5, but independent pharmacies might be wary. “Speaking as a pharmacy owner, you don’t want to be doing this in the middle of the pharmacy where there’s people all around,” he said. “I think the parent and the child deserve some kind of handholding and privacy. We’ve all had kids that get vaccinated and it’s not always a pleasant situation.”
Michael Reppucci, a pharmacist and the owner of Inman Pharmacy in Cambridge, said he and his team decided against administering COVID vaccines to children under 5.
But Alex Doyle, a pharmacist and the owner of Conley’s Drug Store in Ipswich, said his staff has undergone training to vaccinate the younger children, and plans to serve those ages 3 and older. “Our job as a health care provider is to make treatment available to all, and I leave it to patients to decide how and where they wish to seek treatment,” he said.