FACT VS. FICTION: Top questions on kids & the COVID-19 vaccine

PITTSBURGH — Now that kids ages 5 and up can get the COVID-19 vaccine, parents are trying to decide what to do for their children. Several surveys are showing it’s not an easy choice.

11 Investigates’ Angie Moreschi tackles some of the biggest questions parents have in her latest Fact vs. Fiction report.

Many Parents Hesitant

Now that kids ages 5 and up can get the COVID-19 vaccine, some parents are relieved, but many others say “not so fast.”

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey showed more than 60% want to “wait and see” or “definitely will not” get their 5 to 11 year-olds vaccinated.

The main concern? Potential “unknown, long-term” side effects of the vaccine.

Another survey by QuoteWizard.com lists that the top 5 reasons given by parents in Pennsylvania for hesitating to get their kids vaccinated are:

  • 61% — concerned about side effects
  • 34% — not sure if children need it
  • 33% — waiting to see if the vaccine is safe
  • 56% — who don’t trust the government
  • 12% — who don’t believe in vaccination

(The QuoteWizard numbers don’t add up to 100% because each person gave several reasons for not wanting to get their children vaccinated.)

Questions Answered

We talked with pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. Swathi Gowtham, with the American Academy of Pediatrics, to get answers to the most common questions.

QUESTION 1: DO WE REALLY KNOW THE VACCINE IS SAFE FOR CHILDREN LONG TERM?

Dr. Swathi Gowtham: What we know about vaccines in general is that when side effects do happen, they happen within the first three to four weeks of the vaccination. We don’t anticipate any long-term effects a year from now for somebody getting the vaccine who hasn’t had any effects within the first few weeks of the initial vaccine. I’m more worried about long-term effects of COVID, and I’m not worried about any long-term effects from the vaccine itself.

Angie: What about concerns over myocarditis, the inflammation of the heart that we’re seeing in some teenage boys?

Dr. Gowtham: You’re 40 times more likely to get myocarditis from the virus itself than you are to get the mild myocarditis people get from the vaccine. Many teenagers that come in with this (as a reaction to the vaccine), maybe spend a day or so in the hospital and require very little treatment. However, the myocarditis that happens after COVID -- a lot of these children end up spending several days in the hospital, many of them have been in the ICU, and some of them have died. So, this is much, much worse with the virus.

QUESTION 2: GIVEN THAT MOST KIDS GET MILDER CASES OF COVID-19, IS THERE ANY HARM IN WAITING FOR MORE DATA?

Angie: What about parents who just want to wait just a little bit longer to see how things shake out?

Dr. Gowtham: I can understand that. But just remember that waiting also can have consequences.

Angie: What do you worry about when a parent wants to wait?

Dr. Gowtham: Just that their child can get really sick from COVID and end up in our hospital and in my ICU.

COVID-19 Impact on Healthy Children

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that at least 8,300 children ages 5 to 11 have been hospitalized with COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and at least 94 have died (as of Oct. 16, 2021). That number jumps to more than 70,000 hospitalized and more than 700 who’ve died if you look at those ages 0 to 18 (as of Nov. 17, 2021).

While most of those children had existing health conditions, Dr. Gowtham says healthy children can also be impacted. In particular, she cites a rare condition known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, which often starts with mild COVID-19 cases.

“Two weeks to sometimes as late as six weeks after the original infection, the immune system starts attacking the body, particularly the heart, as if it’s the virus itself.” Dr. Gowtham explained. “So, it’s an uncontrolled immune response and these kids get very high fevers, rash, diarrhea, and they can get really, really sick.”

Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children

Just this week, Channel 11 reported on a case of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), in Indiana county.

The mom of 9-year-old Colton Neese thought he had a case of the sniffles, but found out several weeks later it was COVID-19, when he came down with MIS-C and ended up spending three days in the ICU at Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital.

“My mom didn’t tell me I could actually get hurt from this, until we actually got through the whole thing,” Colton told Channel 11 in an interview, along with his mom.

Colton is now recovered, but Dr. Gowtham says the risk of serious cases like this impacting children could make it harmful to wait to get the vaccine for your child.

“I think it would be tragic to have that suffering -- in the ICU, that hospitalization, the feeling of drowning that is hard to explain to a five-year-old,” she said. “COVID is now a vaccine-preventable illness and doing nothing can have consequences.”

QUESTION 3: WHAT IF YOUR CHILD HAS ALREADY HAD COVID-19? IS THE SHOT STILL RECOMMENDED?

Dr. Gowtham says “yes,” to prevent them from getting COVID again -- especially a different variant, which could be more serious.

DR. Gowtham: Any additional death any additional hospitalization -- ICU level care, any prolonged consequence from having COVID, long COVID, all those other things -- is just tragic, particularly the deaths and the ICU stays.

Risk vs. Benefit

It all comes down to a risk vs. benefit analysis that every parent has to make for their own child. If you have questions, the best thing you can do is talk to your pediatrician.