A series of virtual town halls aims to answer families’ questions about adolescents getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics has hosted a dozen family forums since last Thursday with a final one scheduled at 7 p.m. Sunday.
“We really wanted to plan some outreach events and provide an opportunity for families to hear the information, but also really to have a conversation with local pediatricians and family physicians,” said AAPVT Executive Director Stephanie Winters.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the two-dose Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use by children as young as 12. Since then, the state has held clinics in communities around the state in an effort to get young people vaccinated.
As of Thursday, about 13% of children ages 12-15 and about 55% of children ages 16-17 had received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the state’s vaccine dashboard.
But while young people are signing up, Winters said some families still have questions and concerns.
Attendance at the events has been strong, she said — a recent forum for Burlington families drew more than 60 people. An event held for the Rutland community on Wednesday evening had about a half dozen people in attendance.
“The engagement from families has just been really impressive,” she said. “People are really looking for information and really engaged in the process.”
Winters said questions have focused on the length of study of the vaccines and potential complications with children with special health needs. She added that parents and guardians are also asking about misinformation they might be encountering.
However, she said, people who might be trying to spread that misinformation haven’t been showing up at the forums themselves.
“The families and people who have joined us are just really trying to get information and have really good and sincere questions,” she said.
Dr. Elliot Rubin led Wednesday’s forum.
He began with an overview of the current state of the virus in Vermont, as well as a brief discussion of youth mental health concerns due to the pandemic.
Pointing to current data, he noted that COVID cases are skewing toward younger populations with children ages 10-19 being the second-highest group statewide.
Rubin then read a statement from Katherine Lewton, a Vermont student, who described how difficult the past year has been on young people.
“We want to be kids, but the pandemic has forced us to grow. We are still young, but we feel so aged by all we have been dealt. We want to cry about all we’re missing, as we’re still just kids trying to cope,” she stated.
Rubin said the statement is a reminder that young people are at risk for anxiety and depression because of isolation. He urged families with children who might need support to seek out their pediatric providers, who are trained to provide mental health services.
Dr. Rebecca Bell, president of AAPVT, spoke next to unpack some of the science behind the vaccines and address how they got approved for human use so quickly.
“If you had told me a year ago that we would have a number of safe and effective vaccines … I don’t know if I would have believed it,” she said. “It’s amazing how effective these vaccines are.”
Bell acknowledged that people are accustomed to vaccines taking longer to get approved but explained that when COVID-19 hit last year, beating it became the “top priority,” leading to increased funding and collaboration.
She went on to explain the science behind mRNA, or Messenger RNA, molecules — used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — which instruct the body about how to make proteins to help fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
“In someone who’s been vaccinated, the body sees the virus and their immune system’s already ready. They already have the antibodies; they recognize it really quickly before the virus can get out of hand,” she said.
Rubin later added that mRNA technology has existed for more than a decade to treat similar viruses, which made it easy to simply “plug in” the new virus.
While Rubin acknowledged that children who contract COVID-19 may not get as sick as adults, they can get still get sick. And while those who get it may be asymptomatic, they can still pass it on to someone else.
In some cases, he said it can even result in death.
Rubin noted that, to date, more than 300 children have died from COVID-19 nationally.
“This is not a virus that anybody should want to get, or get. You really should do everything you can to not get this virus.”
Rubin then fielded a handful of questions from attendees.
Parent Sarah Leduc said she was still unsure if she wanted her daughter to get vaccinated, and asked Rubin if he thought it was OK to wait a bit longer.
“I think you do have to feel comfortable with it,” he said.
However, he told her that waiting increases her daughter’s chances of getting COVID.
“You don’t really want to fool around with this illness,” he said, stating that not much is known about the long-term effects of the virus.
“Even if your child has a relatively mild case of it, you don’t know what’s going to happen in six months, 12 months.”
Rubin underscored the efficacy of the vaccine, noting that other common vaccines are nowhere near as successful in preventing or mitigating illness.
“The flu vaccine is, in a good year, maybe 40% and we always tell people it’s still worth it,” he said.
Another parent asked if it was true that the vaccine is less effective on children with altered immune systems.
While Rubin said it’s unknown whether the vaccine is any less effective for immunocompromised people, it’s still recommended.
The same parent followed up with question about whether the vaccine affects reproductive health in adolescents.
“There were some unfounded claims about fertility, both in males and females, and they’ve been disproven as much as they can be,” said Rubin. “The answer is no; it does not affect puberty, it doesn’t affect menstrual periods.”
Visit www.healthvermont.gov/myvaccine to find additional information about the COVID-19 vaccine for adolescents and a list of school- and community-based clinics open to 12-15 year olds.
Visit www.aapvt.org to view recordings of past family forums.