Wary Parents Are Target of New Appeals to Vaccinate Children 5-11

For weeks, the school principal had been imploring Kemika Cosey: Would she please allow her children, 7 and 11, to get Covid shots?

Ms. Cosey remained firm. A hard no.

But Mr. Kip — Brigham Kiplinger, the principal of Garrison Elementary School in Washington, D.C. — swatted away the “no’s.”

Ever since the federal government authorized the coronavirus vaccine for children 5 through 11 nearly three months ago, Mr. Kip has been calling the school’s parents, texting, nagging, cajoling daily. Acting as a vaccine advocate — a job usually handled by medical professionals and public health officials — has become central to his role as an educator. “The vaccine is the most important thing happening this year to keep kids in school,” Mr. Kiplinger said.

Largely through Mr. Kiplinger’s skill as a parent-vax whisperer, Garrison Elementary has turned into a public health anomaly: Eighty percent of the 250 Garrison Wildcats in grades kindergarten through fifth grade now have at least one shot, he said.

But as the Omicron variant has stormed through America’s classrooms, sending students home and, in some cases, to the hospital, the rate of vaccination overall for America’s 28 million children in the 5-to-11 age group remains even lower than health experts had feared. According to a new analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation based on federal data, only 18.8 percent are now fully vaccinated and only 28.1 percent have received one dose.

The disparity of rates among states is stark. In Vermont, the share of children who are fully vaccinated is 52 percent; in Mississippi, it is 6 percent.

“It’s going to be a long slog at this point to get the kids vaccinated,” said Jennifer Kates, a senior vice president at Kaiser who specializes in global health policy. She says it will take unwavering persistence like that of Mr. Kiplinger, whom she knows firsthand because her child attends his school. “It’s hard, hard work to reach parents.”

After the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was authorized for younger children in late October, the out-of-the-gate surge in demand lasted a scant few weeks. It peaked just before Thanksgiving, then dropped precipitously and has since stalled. It now hovers at 50,000 to 75,000 new doses a day.

“I was surprised at how quickly the interest in the vaccine for kids petered out,” Dr. Kates said. “Even parents who had been vaccinated themselves were more cautious about getting their kids vaccinated.”

Public health officials say that persuading parents to get their younger children vaccinated is crucial not only to sustaining in-person education but also to containing the pandemic overall. With adult vaccination hitting a ceiling — 74 percent of Americans who are 18 and older are now fully vaccinated, and most of those who aren’t seem increasingly immovable — unvaccinated elementary school children remain a large, turbulent source of spread. Traveling to and from school on buses, traversing school hallways, bathrooms, classrooms and gyms, they can unknowingly act as viral vectors countless times a day.

Parents give numerous reasons for their hesitation. And with their innate protective wariness on behalf of their children, they are susceptible to rampant misinformation. For many working parents, the obstacle is logistical rather than philosophical, as they struggle to find time to get their children to the clinic, doctor’s office or drugstore for a vaccine.

In some communities where adult opposition to vaccines is strong, local health departments and schools do not promote the shots for children vigorously for fear of backlash. Pharmacies may not even bother to stock the child-size doses.

Despite the proliferation of Covid-crowded hospitals, sick children and the highly contagious aspect of Omicron, many parents, still swayed by last year’s surges that were generally not as rough on children as adults, do not believe the virus is dangerous enough to warrant risking their child’s health on a novel vaccine.

Health communication experts additionally blame that view on the early muddled messaging around Omicron, which was initially described as “mild” but also as a variant that could pierce a vaccine’s protection.

Many parents interpreted those messages to mean that the shots served little purpose. In fact, the vaccines have been shown to strongly protect against severe illness and death, although they are not as effective in preventing infections with Omicron as with other variants.

And caseloads of children in whom Covid has been diagnosed only keep rising, as a report last week from the American Academy of Pediatrics underscores. Dr. Moira Szilagyi, the academy’s president, pressed for greater rates of vaccination, saying, “After nearly two years of this pandemic, we know that this disease has not always been mild in children, and we’ve seen some kids suffer severe illness, both in the short term and in the long term.”

Wary Parents Are Target of New Appeals to Vaccinate Children 5-11