With coronavirus vaccines becoming more available throughout the U.S., officials have ramped up efforts to expand COVID-19 vaccination coverage among adolescents.
Speaking recently at a White House COVID-19 response team virtual town hall, President Biden’s chief medical advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, illustrated the importance of stepping up vaccinations for youth highlighting 3.3 million coronavirus infections and 314 deaths in those younger than 18. Federal data indicates 24.1% of kids aged 12-15 have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose with the figure climbing to 38.9% in teens aged 16-17.
Dr. Fauci also cited a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which indicated low hospitalization rates among adolescents, at just two per 100,000 at the peak. Of the 204 children under study, nearly one-third were sent to an ICU and 5% required mechanical ventilation, however, there were no deaths. Also, 70.6% of the total had at least one underlying medical issue.
“The bottom line is that COVID-19 in pediatric patients, although rare with regard to serious complications, definitely can be very serious and the good news is that COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be very safe and effective, including in younger people,” he said.
When Dr. Fauci asked Dr. Lee Beers, pediatrician and president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, her opinion on the most compelling reasons for adolescents to get vaccinated, she cited three “key issues” in support of her recommendation.
Besides preventing illness and the more rare occurrence of death, she also said vaccinations will help children get back to school, sports and social networks, while also noting “a sense of community obligation and service.”
Beers said many pediatricians nationwide have expressed a consistent trend in patients presenting lingering symptoms following COVID-19 infection, also known as long COVID, underscoring the importance of vaccines in this younger age group.
Dr. Fauci also noted a degree of vaccine hesitancy which officials continue to address.
But while some pediatricians remain unsure about vaccination due to conflicting information, Beers said others have more specific concerns about the speed with which the vaccine became available and the lack of data about the vaccine in children
In addition, others point to unsubstantiated reports including a rumor that COVID-19 vaccines cause infertility.
“Unfortunately social media is powerful and there’s a lot of misinformation on social media and our adolescents are on social media a whole lot,” Dr. Beers said. “And so they see the good stuff but they also see the misinformation on there.”
Nationwide, one month since the first COVID-19 vaccines were cleared for ages 12 and up, vaccination rates for children 12 to 17 have surged in the Northeast and lagged in the South.
In Vermont, nearly 59 percent of adolescents have received their first dose while in Massachusetts, the number is more than half. In Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, more than 40 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds have received one shot. And in New Jersey and New York, the rate stands at 36.8 and 32.8 percent, respectively.
But youth living in the South remain least likely to have had their first dose. Just over 7 percent of Mississippi 12- to 17-year-olds have received their first dose with less than 10 percent of that age group in Louisiana and Alabama reporting the lowest rate in the U.S. at 5.5 percent, according to the CDC.
Vaccine hesitancy seems to play a key role in low rates in the South, said Dr. David Kimberlin, a pediatric infectious diseases expert with the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Kimberlin said he has personally witnessed rising rates of vaccine hesitancy among parents in his practice over the past several decades. He said while parents aren’t necessarily anti-vaccine, many remain fearful of shots having been misled by vaccine myths.
“I think personally that it fits into a broader challenge that we have in this country, of just not knowing who to trust,” he said. “It can be frustrating. You debunk one misinformation issue, and then two or three others pop up. It’s like whack-a-mole.”
Last week, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky urged parents to vaccinate their teenagers, citing a recent rise in the number of young people hospitalized with the illness.
“I am deeply concerned by the number of hospitalized adolescents and saddened to see the number of adolescents who required treatment in intensive care units or mechanical ventilation,” she said in a statement.
In the first three months of the year, CDC researchers found that nearly one-third of adolescents hospitalized with Covid-19 required admission into an ICU and 5 percent needed invasive mechanical ventilation.
“Much of this suffering can be prevented,” Dr. Walensky said.