An employee of Neighborhood Health, which provides primary care services through multiple health clinics in Fairfax County, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a pediatric patient. (Courtesy of Neighborhood Health)
Among the things that Pearl Barry is excited to do once she’s fully vaccinated: hang out with friends, eat inside at restaurants and visit SkyZone, a sprawling indoor trampoline park.
“I mean, obviously,” said the eight-year-old from Bon Air. “Who wouldn’t be?” She got her first dose of Pfizer’s pediatric vaccine on Wednesday night, and besides the hour-long wait at her local Walgreens, the process went relatively smoothly. The shot itself felt like the smallest pinch ever, Pearl said — more like a mosquito bite. And her dad, Tim Barry, was equally relieved to see both Pearl and her 5-year-old sister, June, take their first steps toward full immunization.
“Pearl probably asks to go to SkyZone two or three times a week,” he said. “So we’re really excited to have this coincide with Christmas and be able to be more free about seeing friends and family.”
Across Virginia, other parents are feeling the same jubilation. In the first week after federal officials authorized Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for 5 to 11-year-olds, more than 35,000 children received their first dose — close to 5 percent of the state’s total population in that age group, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health.
The rush by many families to embrace pediatric vaccines has been a relief for state health officials after national polling (conducted before the federal authorization) indicated only 27 percent of parents planned to get their children immunized “right away.” VDH hasn’t released demographic data on the 5 to 11-year-olds who have already received their first doses, making it difficult to determine whether disparities have emerged between different groups in getting the shots.
So far, though, health officials have seen “high interest among parents of young children who want to get them protected from COVID-19,” state vaccine coordinator Dr. Danny Avula said in a statement Wednesday. Some health districts are reporting even higher interest in pediatric vaccines than they saw when the shots were authorized for adolescents.
“Our surveys have indicated that about 65 percent of parents intend to vaccinate their children (a higher number than our 12 to 17-year-old age group, interestingly),” Dr. Noelle Bissell, director of four health districts in Southwest Virginia, wrote in a Thursday email. And at least one free health clinic in Richmond, where Latinos are now the most-vaccinated group, reported there’s been no real difference in interest between families of all races and ethnicities.
“Now they’re mainly dealing with people who are hesitant about vaccines in general,” said Rufus Phillips, director of the Virginia Association of Free and Charitable Clinics. Those are the families that local health departments, pediatricians and other providers are preparing to reach out to over the next several weeks.
“I think everyone’s expecting to see that big drop-off we’ve seen before,” said Dr. Michael Martin, president of the Virginia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “And that’s where the real work begins.”
When that decline will occur, though, is difficult to predict. In many areas of the state, clinics have been busy but not overwhelmed with interest as they were in the early days of the adult rollout.
Bremo Pharmacy in Henrico, for example, has already held two pediatric clinics and filled up every slot, according to Tana Kaefer, the company’s director of clinical services. But the appointments have trickled in over the course of several days, unlike earlier in the year when the pharmacy would exhaust its capacity within a few hours or less.
“I haven’t gotten frantic calls like I did in the beginning with the adult vaccines” Kaefer said. But she said it doesn’t necessarily reflect a lack of demand. For one, state and local health officials now have months of experience in distributing and administering vaccines, which allowed them to quickly set up new clinics and allocate doses among doctor’s offices, pharmacies and other providers. As a result, many parents have a wealth of options when it comes to getting their children vaccinated.
Some pediatricians, for example, have been highly efficient at distributing doses. Martin said he’s already administered around 100 first shots at his small practice in Northern Virginia, and one office in Charlottesville vaccinated more than 500 children at a drive-through clinic on Saturday. Other doctors, though, are still in the process of setting up appointments or haven’t signed up for shipments at all. In many of those cases, families can easily turn to pharmacies or their local health departments.
For Daniel and Margaret Anne Hinkle, who live outside Lexington with their six-year-old son, it was more convenient to go through his elementary school. While they were waiting to hear back from their pediatrician, they learned the district had scheduled a clinic with help from the health department. On Tuesday, their son took a break from classes to get his first shot, with Margaret Anne there to hold his hand.
“He’s always been very nervous about shots,” she said. “So to have that dynamic instead where he’s going with friends — and honestly, the lollipop afterwards — it really made the whole process smoother. He didn’t even cry.”
Kaefer said other parents are holding out for appointments on Friday so their children won’t have to miss school in case of side effects. Some are waiting a week or two so their children’s second doses aren’t due over the week of Thanksgiving. And there are still parents with lingering questions over what to expect.
Dr. Basim Khan, who directs a network of primary care clinics in Northern Virginia, said the response they’ve had from families so far has been a mix. That’s where outreach becomes particularly important. His practice, Neighborhood Health, just began offering pediatric vaccines at a mobile van that visits community locations including rec centers, faith-based and low-income housing developments. The office is also sending text messages to the families of existing patients, encouraging them to get their children vaccinated.
“These longitudinal relationships are so important,” he said. “Because sometimes it isn’t just one conversation. And that’s where I think primary care is so critical at this stage of the rollout.”
Even with the advent of shots for 5 to 11-year-olds, Virginia’s average number of daily doses has been declining steadily since the start of the month. Still, some regions are struggling to keep up with demand. While there’s no concern about exhausting supplies, health officials allocated pediatric vaccines based on previous demand among 12 to 15-year-olds. As a result, high-uptake counties like Fairfax received more than 59,000 doses in the first week, while the New River Health District received 2,700.
As a result, Bissell said she’s nowhere close to meeting demand in the region, which includes university towns like Radford and Blacksburg.
“Our pediatrician and pharmacy partners have waiting lists of hundreds for the 5 to 11-year-old vaccines,” she wrote. The district is only expecting 800 additional doses next week, which Bissell distributes among five community providers. Some other pharmacies have gotten shipments directly through the federal government, but she’s urging parents to be patient as more supply comes in over the next several weeks.
For providers, vaccinating children is key to curbing further infections. Martin pointed to historic success with the pneumococcal vaccine for infants, which reduced rates of hospitalization for pneumonia across the board. The same thing is true for the COVID-19 vaccine, which can prevent children from spreading the virus and reduces the risk it will continue to evolve into new strains.
But for many parents, it’s also the first glimmer of hope after nearly two years of virtual school, missed sports practices, and carefully guarding their children against potential exposures. It’s exciting for kids, too. Meredith Henne Baker, a Chesterfield County parent, said one of her daughters discussed the vaccine in her second-grade class on Monday. It was a French immersion session, and her daughter said everyone was très excité about the opportunity.
“Reddish-purple county, and the kids are completely excited about getting a shot,” Henne Baker wrote in an email. “There’s been a lot of coverage of hesitancy, but there’s some serious polio-vax level enthusiasm out here too.”
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