By Anna Kristina Moseidjord. Bay City News.
While the Bay Area leads the nation in childhood immunization rates, a surprising number of parents express doubts and fears when making the decision to vaccinate their children against COVID-19.
An informal survey of Bay Area parents found fears ranging from concerns about the vaccine's short-term side effects to questions about whether shots are really necessary against a disease that is often less harmful to children than it is to grown ups.
Even among those who view COVID vaccines as safe and positive, the decision is often not so straightforward.
Katie Sherwin, of Oakland, said that although she and her partner have "always been pro-vaccination," she was hesitant about vaccinating her two children, ages 4 and 10 months.
“Maybe I shouldn't admit this, but I remember texting my friends after the vaccine was approved? "So we're all still doing this vaccination thing, right?" Sherwin said.
Sherwin isn't the only one turning to his friends to get around these pressures. As CDC guidelines and scientific consensus have changed over the course of the pandemic, many parents have looked to their community, often asking friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers about their vaccine options.
Marc McCoy, a parent and employee of the Oakland Unified School District, described his experience navigating the complex web of resources available to him.
"I try to listen to all the news channels, I try to watch as many news channels and talk to as many people as possible," McCoy said. "I hear things that make me feel comfortable, and then maybe isolated incidents? Where people? they were healthy and then they were vaccinated and died. As an individual, you have to make a decision about what is right."
Although Sherwin and McCoy ultimately decided to vaccinate their respective children, the doubts they expressed are echoed by people who have chosen not to get vaccinated.
Claire Anderson, of Piedmont, for example, said that she and her partner are "not anti-vaccine, but we are with COVID."
Because of this, both of her children are not vaccinated against COVID, although they have received flu and TDAP shots. The Anderson family's choice was driven by both the novelty of the vaccine and their perception that COVID was not serious for children. Speaking about the vaccine, Anderson said it's "too new. It's only approved for emergency use right now, and I don't want my kids to be guinea pigs."
In fact, the FDA has approved the vaccine and boosters beyond "emergency use" as it has passed all testing requirements and is expected to remain in use beyond the pandemic. But vaccine novelty anxiety appears to be common, as parents grapple with drastic changes in regulations and pandemic conditions in the past three years.
Concerns about testing despite rigorous procedures
Many Bay Area parents have echoed Anderson's fears that their children would become "guinea pigs." Fears often center around the idea that both the original COVID vaccine and subsequent boosters have not been adequately researched, rushing for government approval due to "unprecedented circumstances."
However, COVID vaccines have been tested to the same standards as other FDA-approved vaccines, and while they are new, the science behind them has been long researched. The speed at which they were approved was the result of a combination of administrative and funding options that helped pharmaceutical companies research and manufacture the vaccine before it was approved. And the vaccines were still required to go through the same testing process as vaccines like TDAP and the flu shot.
COVID-19 is just one of many diseases in the coronavirus family, and many of its relatives have been the subject of research for decades. The coronavirus family includes SARS and MERS, for example, two diseases that have long been a real concern to governments and the international health community.
COVID vaccines could not have been developed so quickly if it were not for the years of coronavirus research that occurred before the pandemic. Additionally, the vaccine was approved and distributed much faster than normal due to a combination of increased funding, administrative prioritization, and pre-approval manufacturing.
Typically, many of the obstacles to vaccine approval and distribution are bureaucratic and financial, not scientific. The cost of funding testing and the financial risk involved in manufacturing vaccines can be prohibitive for pharmaceutical companies, especially relative to vaccine profits, since vaccines are generally not a lucrative commodity.
After designing them, pharmaceutical companies may have to wait months for FDA attention, and typically only after they've been approved will they start manufacturing them.
However, subsidies and support from the Trump administration meant that billions of dollars went to support pharmaceutical companies in this process. The COVID vaccine was a top priority for the FDA when testing was completed and it received immediate administrative attention. Not only that, the subsidies allowed pharmaceutical companies to make large numbers of vaccines before they were approved by the FDA.
What about the side effects?
It's worth noting that for the original COVID vaccine, this process included multiple phases of testing on animal and human subjects. For some of the later boosters, this process involved animal testing only, which is in line with the normal and less rigorous process for updated vaccines.
However, this has also caused concern for some parents.
Rachel Concannon, from Oakland, for example, mentioned that the lack of human testing stopped her from making the decision to empower her children.
Many parents expressed concern about the impact of side effects on their children, as well as concerns about subjecting their children to those side effects when COVID seems to affect children less severely than adults.
Jackie Boyle of Alameda, for example, described how the side effects of the vaccine made her depressed for a couple of days.
"Even getting up to go to the bathroom was a mission," she said.
Pointing to the 1-year-old she is caring for, she asked, "If the vaccine did that to me, I mean, what will it do to her, when she's so little?"
Like other caregivers, Boyle worries that such expertise isn't necessary. This is especially true as so-called "tripledemia" has swept schools this season: Parents of children who have recently had RSV or the flu were especially reluctant to put their children through another couple of days feeling sick.
Concannon of Oakland, a mother and former school counselor, described how she weighed the decision: "There's a part of me that says, you know, it's less severe in kids, do they really need to go through this?"
However, she eventually vaccinated and boosted her two children, saying the loss and mental health impact of missing school outweighed any potential side effects by a wide margin.
Ultimately, many Bay Area parents are struggling with the truly unknown nature of decision-making in the age of the pandemic. Vaccinating children requires trust in our social systems, systems that are dealing with new challenges.
However, while it is true that COVID is less likely to cause severe illness and hospitalization in children, the CDC and other health authorities have clearly stated that vaccinating children far outweighs any risk and provides significant immunity. These health authorities strongly recommend vaccinating and potentiating children.
As Jackie Boyle said, "If you have a heart attack, you go to the doctor, and all that research comes from the same place."
While the official advice is clear, there is a real drudgery in guiding kids through what has been tritely referred to as "unprecedented times." Rachel Concannon described how her son asked her what she did during quarantine as a child.
"Oh, honey," she remembers saying, "this has never happened before in my life."
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