PITTSBORO — Now that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention is recommending COVID-19 vaccines for children up to 5 years old, Chatham’s health experts are encouraging parents to seriously consider it as a “critical line of defense” against the virus.
After the omicron variant’s emergence last winter, child hospitalizations jumped significantly. COVID became the fifth-leading cause of death for children between the ages of 1 and 4 since March 2020, based on data from the National Center for Health Statistics. But it wasn’t until June 17 that the Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer’s three-dose vaccine for children 6 months to 4 years old, and Moderna’s two-dose vaccine for children 6 months to 5 years old.
The vaccination rate for children of all ages is low. The prevailing wisdom — perhaps borne out of studies that have since been updated — is COVID doesn’t impact children as much as adults.
But more recent evidence reinforces the efficacy of vaccinations for children. The basis for having children between 6 months and 5 years old vaccinated is clear, according to the director of the Chatham County Public Health Department.
“Added protection, plain and simple,” said Mike Zelek. “These vaccines have been proven to be safe, and while children are at lower risk than older adults of severe illness, they are not at no risk. The vaccine adds an important layer of protection, generating an immune response similar to what we see in young adults.”
Zelek said there’s “still a lot of COVID in the community, and that will likely continue with new variants. Vaccinations continue to be a critical line of defense, even for young children.”
Eric Wolak, the chief operating officer and chief nursing officer at Siler City’s Chatham Hospital, agreed children remain at risk — which is why parents should consider having them vaccinated.
“First and foremost, the vaccines work and they are safe,” he said. “I know a big reason often given for not vaccinating children is because there is an impression that COVID does not impact kids as much. While that may be true from a data standpoint, COVID does impact children. Children can get sick from COVID, keeping them out of school than if they were vaccinated.”
Vaccinations also protect children from long COVID, as well as protecting the adults with whom children interact regularly, Wolak said — including teachers, church members, grandparents, parents of friends and others.
“The unfortunate reality is that children have died of COVID, children end up hospitalized with COVID, and children can pass COVID on to others who may get very sick from it,” he said. “This reality, alone, I believe, is justification to getting children vaccinated.”
Chatham is considered at “medium” community level for COVID right now, Zelek said, with still plenty of cases being diagnosed. Hospitalization rates continue to be on the decline, he said, but there’s a reason: vaccinations.
“Getting this young age group vaccinated remains important and will help lower that hospitalization rate even further,” he said. “At the end of the day, this isn’t a choice between getting COVID and getting vaccinated — it is about whether or not you have protection from the vaccine when you get exposed to COVID.”
Not getting vaccinated can only lead to more illnesses that are preventable, Zelek said — a fact borne out by data.
“We’ve learned that vaccines have held up well to COVID, especially against severe illness and death, and that they continue to be very safe,” he said. “We’ve also learned that boosters play an important role in reinforcing that protection over time. This is especially important for older adults and those with conditions that affect their immune systems.”
Wolak said data “clearly indicates” the vaccines are safe and effective.
“I do not understand why a parent would risk their child getting sick from a disease, when we have good tools available to us to protect our children and those around them,” he said. “Every vaccine carries some risk. The same is true for the COVID vaccine, specifically myocarditis. However, the risk of getting myocarditis from COVID infection is many times more likely than getting it from the vaccine.”
Variants remain a wild card, but respiratory viruses tend to rise in fall and winter — more rationale for protection.
“My best guess is that we will see an increase in cases that time of year, as we have the past two,” Zelek said. “Which, for me, is all the more reason to stay up-to-date on vaccinations.”
Zelek’s department began offering the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to children ages 6 months to 5 years last Friday. It’ll continue to offer the vaccine weekly for all individuals ages 6 months and older from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays; parents and guardians are asked to call the Siler City clinic at 919-742-5641 to set up an appointment.
The CDC’s decision to recommend vaccines came after months of study and trials to ensure the vaccine’s effectiveness and safety in this newly-eligible age group.
“If you have questions about the vaccine, talk to your child’s doctor,” Zelek said. “And if you are looking for a place to get vaccinated, either for your child or yourself, we would be happy to serve you at our clinic in Siler City.”
To find all locations offering the COVID-19 vaccine for children, visit https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/vaccines/kids. To learn more about the COVID-19 vaccine and find other resources, visitwww.chathamcountync.gov/coronavirusvaccine. To find a COVID-19 vaccine location, visit www.vaccines.gov.
Wolak says COVID became more personal for him in the last week: he tested positive for it for the first time.
“I think the biggest lesson learned is that while the current COVID variants are able to evade our immune system, the vaccines are still keeping people out of the hospital and out of the funeral home,” he said. “I knew that since I was fully vaccinated and up-to-date with my booster, that I would be just fine. Unfortunately, those who are not vaccinated and boosted may not share that same since of security.”
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