Lafayette area pediatricians are urging parents to get their children 12 and older vaccinated against the coronavirus to make a safe return to school possible as the number of children infected is increasing during the fourth surge.
On May 13, Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine became available to Louisiana children ages 12 to 15, after previously opening to older teens.
Since then, 5,953 children 12 and older have received one dose of the vaccine in the Louisiana Department of Health’s seven-parish Region 4, which makes up Acadiana, and another 6,731 have completed their two-dose vaccination, according to Monday data from LDH. The health department updates COVID-19 vaccination data each Monday and Thursday at noon.
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The vaccination numbers are poor, said Dr. Derek Baumbouree, a pediatrician with the Lourdes Physician Group associated with Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center.
Baumbouree has practiced in Lafayette for 22 years and said parents are scared: because the vaccine was recently released, because they don’t understand it, because they saw a rumor or misinformation on Facebook that made them concerned.
In some ways, it’s not a new issue. Pediatricians educate about vaccines all the time, and he and his team are trying to speak with every parent of patients 12 and older to talk about the facts.
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“What I tell parents all the time, all the time, all the time, when it comes to vaccinations is that people need to be afraid of the disease and not the shot. And that goes for anything we vaccinate for,” he said.
Baumbouree said the most important thing for parents to understand is that who is at risk from the coronavirus is beginning to change. While child cases are largely still manageable in an outpatient setting, the number of children becoming infected is rising and so are child hospitalizations. With COVID-19, it’s not always clear who will have a severe case.
“This is not just grandma’s disease anymore. We need to be aware that the average age of death now with COVID has decreased, to the 50s, which means more and more people that are younger are actually succumbing to this virus than before. With that, we need to try to prevent as much of that as possible,” he said.
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Baumbouree said he’s seen a notable increase in juvenile COVID-19 cases coming through his office during the state’s fourth wave in comparison to previous surges. He estimated they’re seeing between 3-5 positive COVID-19 cases a day, with more families calling in to report sick children who tested positive at walk-in clinics and other facilities.
Dr. Adrienne Musumeche, a founding partner of Premier Pediatrics of Acadiana, said her four-doctor practice is seeing about 10 COVID-19 positive children a day, with more calling in to report cases. The phones started blowing up around the end of July, she said.
Musumeche said young children are mostly showing head cold symptoms, while school age and older children are beginning to develop worse flu-like symptoms. Her office has sent a couple infants with COVID-19 to the emergency room for high fevers, but they didn’t require admittance, she said.
The Louisiana Department of Health reported 596 new COVID-19 cases for children ages 5-17 from Aug. 5 to 11 in Region 4, with another 192 cases among children birth to 4. By comparison, from June 24-30 just before the fourth wave ramped up, there were 38 new cases for children 5-17 and 15 new cases reported for children birth to 4 in Acadiana.
“It just seems like it’s spreading like wildfire. It’s moving fast and it’s spreading fast,” Baumbouree said.
With students returning to school across Acadiana, both pediatricians said vaccination of eligible children, coupled with masking, frequent hand washing or sanitizing and other mitigation measures will be crucial to a safe and consistent school year, especially during the current COVID-19 surge.
Baumbouree and Musumeche said in-person learning is important, especially after watching patients struggle with mental health issues in 2020, but adults and eligible students need to utilize every mitigation measure available to limit virus spread, keep students and educators safe and ensure schools remain open.
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“I feel very different this start of school. I’m more worried this year than I was last year,” Musumeche said. “It’s this very tough line that we walk. We want the kids in school for the mental health issues, the education, the social dynamic but at the same time what’s going to happen with the spread of this illness?”
Jill LeBlanc’s 13-year-old daughter, Lila, received her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine July 1. LeBlanc consulted her team of doctors, including specialists who treat a heart condition she developed in childhood and the OBGYN who delivered her daughter, about vaccinating the teen. She trusts them, she said.
LeBlanc knew she wanted Lila to enjoy more normalcy — friends, travel and more opportunities to see elderly family members — and the vaccine could provide that, she said. While Lila wasn’t thrilled about the physical shot, she grew to appreciate it more after she was exposed to COVID-19 twice in July and didn’t become ill, her mother said.
The teen was exposed while helping at a day camp and attending a sleepaway camp. Each time, the 13-year-old was tested twice across several days and never tested positive or developed symptoms. LeBlanc said she’s confident the vaccine helped protect her daughter.
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“I don’t have a medical degree but for her to have tested negative four times after two exposures when this Delta variant is so prevalent, I know correlation and causation don’t always line up, but it kind of seems like a pretty standard no-brainer right there to me,” LeBlanc said.
While supportive of the vaccine, LeBLanc said she hasn’t discussed it with parents in her circle beyond her best friend. She said with tension around the vaccine high and the vaccine and other COVID-19 measures politicized, it feels like too touchy of a subject.
“When it comes to the kids, I wouldn’t want someone telling me what to do with my kid. I can convince you to get the vaccine, but it feels like it’s going a little step too far if I’m convincing you to get your kid vaccinated. I would hope most people would get their kid vaccinated,” she said.
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LeBlanc encouraged anyone who’s seen a concerning report or anecdote about the vaccine to print it out and bring it to their doctors, and get perspective from professionals instead of the internet. Baumbouree and Musumeche echoed that sentiment.
“I tell parents, ‘Don’t listen to Dr. Google. Don’t listen to Nurse Facebook,’” Dr. Baumbouree said.
Musumeche and Baumbouree said they’re making a point to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine with all families with eligible children who come into their practices. Both doctors have opted for vaccination in their families; Musumeche for her 12-year-old daughter, and Baumbouree for his eligible children.
Musumeche said she tries to tread lightly with families, letting them know she hears their concerns and meeting them with hard facts, data and information from reputable medical organizations who are tracking the vaccine.
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A concern of late has been small numbers of cases of myocarditis and pericarditis, or inflammation of the heart and heart’s outer lining, respectively, in adolescents and young adults post-vaccination.
Musumeche advises parents that the side effect is rare and case tracking showed most cases resolved easily with rest or treatment. COVID-19 infections, meanwhile, carry a higher risk of damage to children and adolescents’ hearts, existing data shows, she said.
“What do I lose sleep about? What do I worry about? I worry about the long term implications of the illness COVID to these kids. There’s little blips and stories of how there’s possibly some long term cardiac sequelae in kids who had minor infections; they didn’t even have cardiac complaints when they had COVID. I’m worried about — are some of these athletes going to have trouble a year down the road or longer? I don’t have those concerns with the vaccine, but with the illness I absolutely have those concerns,” she said.