May 6, 2021 -- Three-quarters of parents don’t plan to vaccinate their kids against COVID-19 when the FDA gives the go-ahead for younger children, according to a new survey. Many said they’d wait a few months, but a full third said they don’t plan to vaccinate their kids at all.
The survey, by the polling company Invisibly, asked 1,258 parents about their thoughts on the COVID vaccine for their children. The majority -- 53% -- said they plan to vaccinate eventually, but only 26% said they’d do so right away. This tracks with the results of an earlier study out of Indiana University, which found that more than one-quarter of parents won’t vaccinate their kids.
For now, these plans are all speculative, since only the Pfizer vaccine is approved for any children, and the cutoff is age 16. Recently concluded clinical trials found the vaccine 100% effective in 12- to 15-year-olds, and the FDA is studying the data and is expected to authorize it for teens 12-15 next week. Moderna’s adolescent clinical trial is still underway, and Johnson & Johnson’s is just getting started. Pfizer and Moderna have also begun studies in children as young as 6 months old.
Return to Normal vs. Fear of the Unknown
Tanya Haas of North Branch, NY, has three kids -- two under the age of 3, and another who’s 16. A former pediatric ICU nurse, she considers herself extremely pro-vaccine, but she plans to hold off on vaccinating her younger children once COVID vaccines become available.
“I won’t say I’d never get it for them, but I don’t want to jump,” she says. “I’ll need to see a bigger sample size of kids getting it.” Since she and her husband are vaccinated, she believes she can keep her little ones safe until then.
That belief mirrors another finding of the Indiana University study. “Amid the spread of both accurate information and politicized disinformation about possible side effects, many mothers feel more capable of controlling the risks of the coronavirus itself than the risks of the coronavirus vaccine,” wrote Jessica Calarco, PhD, one of the study’s authors, wrote in The Washington Post.
When it comes to her 16-year-old, who’s old enough to be vaccinated right now, Haas is leaving the decision up to him. “He was afraid to play basketball without it, but he’s a little nervous about the vaccine. He’s still thinking about it,” she says.
Gretchen Schaeffer’s 14-year-old daughter, on the other hand, can’t wait to get vaccinated. “She’s a high school freshman. She wants to have overnights and parties, the typical high school experience,” Schaeffer says. “My younger daughter is happy playing outside for now, but teens want to go to the family room and watch a movie. They want more freedom, space.”
Schaeffer, a college instructor in Bangor, ME, feels comfortable with the decision. “I’m of the camp that says yup, the vaccine might be new, but it’s also a new illness. The risks of the illness far outweigh the risks of the vaccine.”
Overcoming the Resistance
One thing that may help reassure hesitant parents: the extremely promising data from the Pfizer adolescent trials.
“Obviously, the FDA has to look at it, but to have 100% safety and efficacy and a huge boost in antibodies? It’s amazing,” says Donna Hallas, PhD, who co-wrote an analysis of the COVID vaccines’ development process for Contemporary Pediatrics. “I don’t know of any other vaccine with that data set, for anyone.”
A look at the changes in adults’ desire to get vaccinated over the last few months suggests she may be right. At the end of 2020, the Pew Research Center found that Americans’ willingness to get the vaccine rose as they gained confidence in their development.
The wait-and-see approach may also be short-lived. Since the vaccine began to roll out to adults in December, the share of Americans who have either been vaccinated already or plan to do so ASAP has grown. As of late March, only 17% still say they want to “wait and see,” according to tracking done by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“It’s not uncommon for parents to say they’ll sit back and wait a little bit,” says Hallas. “It doesn’t mean they’re really hesitant -- they just want to gather information.”
The return to full-time, in-person school may prompt many parents to vaccinate their kids. Already, more than 100 colleges and universities are requiring vaccinations for students. Hallas believes it could be necessary for K-12 schools, too, if we’re ever going to regain a real sense of normalcy.
“A return to school means kids will play sports, blow into instruments in band, sing in chorus. To really be able to return, most likely schools will have to say we need children vaccinated,” she says. “If they don’t mandate vaccines for schools and only half the children get vaccinated, that’s a lot of kids who could potentially spread illness.”
That large number of unvaccinated children could be enough to keep the U.S. from reaching herd immunity. “There will be outbreaks at schools,” says Hallas. “They will spread to those at home who might not be able to be vaccinated, and then continue to spread.”