Of all the myths associated with COVID-19, one of the most pervasive is that the virus is essentially harmless for children.
The facts are that at least 143 American children between 5 and 11 years of age have lost their lives to COVID-19 and more than 8,600 have been hospitalized. Thousands more have suffered from MIS-C, a severe inflammatory condition that can damage the heart and other vital organs, or so-called long COVID, which can persist for many months after the acute illness has subsided. Countless children have been subjected to quarantine after COVID-19 exposures, school lockdowns and repeated interruption of their education. Some of these children will be dealing with the consequences of COVID-19 for the rest of their lives.
While we’re at it, let’s clear up a whole host of particularly egregious myths suggesting that COVID-19 vaccines are either dangerous or ineffective.
A multitude of studies show that the COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in American adults and adolescents are both safe and highly effective. As an infectious disease specialist for more than 30 years, I am hard-pressed to think of another vaccine for any disease that has proved as safe and effective. Recently updated data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that compared with those who are fully vaccinated, unvaccinated individuals are 5.8 times as likely to become infected with COVID-19 and 14 times as likely to die from the disease. From my perspective, the rapidity with which these vaccines were developed, studied, approved and distributed is a triumph of modern medical science rather than a cause for concern or skepticism.
Until recently, we did not have a vaccine to protect children less than 12 years of age against COVID-19. Many of the 83 cases of COVID-19 that required hospitalization at Children’s Hospital New Orleans over the summer were largely unavoidable, but as of just a few weeks ago we now have a vaccine that was found in a large clinical trial to be 91% effective in preventing infection and 100% effective in preventing hospitalization or death from COVID-19 in children 5-11 years of age. A COVID-19 vaccine for even younger children likely will be available early in 2022.
This brings me to what I suppose is one more myth.
I have always believed that responsible adults will almost always prioritize the safety of their children, but you wouldn’t know it to hear some of the reactions to what should have been a routine proposal from the Louisiana Department of Health to add COVID-19 vaccination to a list of many other vaccines required for attending schools, day cares and universities. Such requirements have been a mainstay of public health for decades. The requirement proposed by LDH would apply only to age groups in which the vaccine is fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration, currently 16 years and older. Parents could easily opt-out of the requirement by signing a simple statement of exemption. Fortunately, Gov. John Bel Edwards has said it would be “foolish” and “inappropriate” not to add COVID-19 vaccines to the state’s required immunization schedule.
Sadly, we are off to a distressingly slow start in vaccinating young children against COVID-19. Three weeks in, we have vaccinated 946 children aged 5-11 years at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, but across Louisiana fewer than 3% of children in that age group have received their first vaccine dose, ranking us among the bottom three nationally (with Mississippi and Alabama). We have got to do better.
Gov. Edwards and LDH are right to add COVID-19 vaccines to the state’s list of required vaccines, with a parental opt-out provision. Apparently, for some, opposing a mandate of any kind trumps even the health and safety of one’s own children and grandchildren. Allowing this point of view to dictate policy will come back to haunt us.
The death rate from COVID-19 in children may be low, but it’s 100% if it happens to be your child. Now that COVID-19 in children is almost completely preventable through vaccination, the occurrence of serious illness and death is on us as supposedly responsible adults.
Mark W. Kline is physician-in-chief, senior vice-president and chief medical officer at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, and professor of pediatrics at the Tulane University School of Medicine and LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.