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Pandemic-Weary Parents Weigh Vaccinating Their Kids Under 5 Against COVID-19 | Health Care | Seven Days

  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Tristan McNamara holding his daughter Lyra, 4, as she receives a COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Jenna Doran

A basket of lollipops sat on a table in a large room at Middlebury’s emergency services building last week, awaiting young patients. Masked workers lingered while cartoons played on a pull-down projector screen.

The June 28 clinic was one of the first in Vermont at which children between the ages of 6 months and 5 could get their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. After 18 months of waiting, the youngest group in the U.S. was finally eligible for its shots.

But there have been small crowds at clinics in the two weeks since kid-size vaccine doses began arriving in Vermont. In Middlebury, for instance, about 10 kids under 5 came in that day for a shot; none showed up in the last hour. That’s a stark contrast from earlier in the pandemic, when clinics for older age groups were much more crowded.

Some parents of young children, battle-weary from two years of navigating the pandemic, said the news that their kids are now eligible for the vaccine didn’t elicit the same sense of relief and elation they felt earlier, when adults started getting their jabs. Still, many said they looked forward to having some protection for their little ones — and a measure of comfort for themselves.

“The level of exhaustion from decision fatigue and fear … during this time is overwhelming for so many people,” said Burlington dad Hollis Easter, whose son is 4. “The thing I hear over and over from other parents is just how burnt to a crisp we all are and kind of hoping that something will alleviate that.”

The youngest age group is now eligible for a two-dose course manufactured by Moderna or a three-dose regime from Pfizer-BioNTech. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have signed off on both as safe and effective.

Easter took his son to get his first shot on June 29 at a walk-in clinic run by Garnet Health at the University Mall in South Burlington. It went smoothly, Easter said, and he sweetened the deal with the purchase of a coveted Lego set.

Garnet administration coordinator Christina Brace, who ran the U-Mall clinic, said her team had vaccinated 13 children under 5 by 3 p.m. that day. The turnout paled in comparison to the company’s clinics for adults and older kids last fall, when it was common to administer more than 400 shots per day, Brace said. But she was happy to be able to provide the service.

In addition to Garnet, three other emergency medical services providers — in Middlebury, Waterbury and Brattleboro — have contracted with the state to run walk-in clinics for children under 5 across the state, according to Vermont Department of Health immunization program manager Monica Ogelby. Those providers are responsible for arranging to offer shots at municipal buildings or high-traffic events, such as farmers markets, fairs and festivals. Still, Ogelby said, the “vast majority” of the 10,200 doses that the state initially ordered for children under 5 went to pediatrician’s offices.

That’s because the roughly 26,000 children in the newly eligible age group go to the doctor regularly, Ogelby said, and parents with young kids typically have lots of questions about vaccine safety.

“We heard from providers, ‘Give us the vaccine for that age group, and we will definitely be best poised to help address those worries … in the moment and then provide the vaccine in the moment,'” Ogelby said.

As of midday on Monday, 1,675 children under 5 — or 6.4 percent — had received their first COVID-19 vaccine, according to the health department.

Ogelby said the state anticipates a slow uptake of the vaccine for the under-5 set for multiple reasons. For one, some people feel that COVID-19 in children isn’t “a big deal” and inflicts a lower death toll among the young, many of whom have been infected already. Added to that are vaccine fatigue and politicization. The virus has largely receded from the headlines, and the state is no longer offering daily updates on the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Dr. Alexandra Bannach, medical director of North Country Pediatrics in Newport, said vaccine uptake at her practice had been below her expectations. She chalked it up to the relatively mild symptoms associated with the COVID-19 strains that are circulating right now and the fact that many children have recently been infected. Some parents have said they will wait in the hope that vaccines adapted to newer strains are available in the fall.

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Rachel Gwinn holding her daughter Estelle, 2, as she receives a COVID-19 vaccine - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR

  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Rachel Gwinn holding her daughter Estelle, 2, as she receives a COVID-19 vaccine

According to the health department, 7,899 children ages 5 and under have had COVID-19 since the pandemic began. No one 18 or under has died from the virus in Vermont.

Emily, a nurse from Lamoille County who asked that only her first name be used because of her workplace’s media policy, said that while she and her husband are “aggressively pro-vaccine,” they found themselves feeling hesitant when their pediatrician told them their 6-month-old son was now eligible for his first shot. They opted to do some further research on short- and long-term side effects first. Two days later, the parents and their baby tested positive for COVID-19, and the couple shifted their thinking: They’ll definitely vaccinate him after he recovers, Emily said.

Danielle Clement of South Burlington, a scientist who works in infectious disease research, had no reservations about getting the vaccine for her 15-month-old son. He received his first dose, along with three other inoculations, during a routine visit to his pediatrician on June 23.

“It’s like the flu shot,” Clement said. “It’s something you do, and every year, we’ll get it again.”

Still, she said, getting her son vaccinated felt less dramatic than when she got her COVID-19 shots last year.

“We all felt like we had superpowers if you were vaccinated,” Clement said. With her son’s vaccine, “I think it gives a peace of mind that there’s protection against severe illness and death … but in terms of completely avoiding COVID? No.”

Eva Zimmerman of Poultney said her 4-year-old daughter’s first shot, during an appointment at Community Health Rutland on June 28, also felt anticlimactic.

“It’s been too long to feel the excitement anymore,” Zimmerman said. “I’m glad she has the protection, [but] I definitely feel that kind of fatigue at this point.”

Zimmerman, a recent transplant from Berkeley, Calif., said her daughter’s health care provider, Community Health Castleton, told her they weren’t offering the vaccine because there wasn’t enough demand.

Kate Van Wagner of Burlington said she wishes the state’s messaging around vaccinating little kids was more direct and energetic. Van Wagner monitored the news for months, awaiting word of when her 4-year-old would be eligible.

Van Wagner’s family attended a pop-up vaccine clinic at the Waterbury Farmers Market two weeks ago. Her child wore a hooded unicorn towel for the occasion.

After a “deeply depleting” two years of parenting, Van Wagner said she’s hoping for a small reprieve from the “hypervigilance” she has felt trying to keep her child safe.

For David Runge, who has a 3-month-old, a vaccine in the next few months means he can finally entertain the idea of introducing his son to his father and stepmother, who live out of state and opted not to be vaccinated.

Runge sees the vaccine as a means to keep his child — “just a squishy little being right now” — safer, at least to some degree.

“I know there are plenty of people out there who are just not going to get the vaccine,” Runge said, “and at least we can be proactive in protecting him.”