Students at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in South Salt Lake wear masks as they get on a bus after their first day of school on Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. Now’s the time for students 12 and older to get vaccinated against COVID-19, Utah pediatricians said Friday. (Scott G Winterton,Deseret News)
SALT LAKE CITY — Now’s the time for students 12 and older to get vaccinated against COVID-19 so they can be fully immunized before school starts, a pair of Utah pediatricians said Friday, urging parents who have doubts about the shots to talk to their family doctors to clear up any misinformation.
“Most parents, though, that are hesitant, it tends to be more of an emotional decision, not a logical decision. That’s why I think it’s also really good to talk to someone who knows you personally,” Dr. Tim Duffy, associate medical director for Intermountain Healthcare’s Pediatric Service Line, said during a virtual news conference.
Duffy said parents are hearing plenty about the coronavirus and children, but “they’re not sure what’s true and what isn’t. To have their health care provider interpret that for them, in the context of what’s going on in their own families, is huge.”
Providers agree that although there is some risk to vaccinating adolescents and teenagers, “it’s very, very low and it is definitely less than exposure” to COVID-19 for that age group, Duffy said. Vaccines are currently available only for those 12 and older, although federal approval for younger children to get the shots could come this winter.
Dr. Andy Pavia, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health and director of hospital epidemiology at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital, said myocarditis, the inflammation of the heart muscle, is a rare side effect linked to the vaccine, more common in males under 30 years old.
“But it is extraordinarily rare. For every case of myocarditis that might occur with vaccination, it’s estimated that it will prevent some 14,200 cases, about 400 hospitalizations and three deaths,” Pavia said. “We’ve seen a few cases of myocarditis that have not been serious. People recover well.”
He dismissed what he termed a “myth” that vaccinations can affect fertility as “100% total hogwash,” but said it’s being actively spread on social media and may have come from “an active anti-vaccination group or even a Russian disinformation campaign.”
Other untrue claims that are circulating, Pavia said, are that vaccines are less effective or not safe in young people and that they don’t get as sick if they do contract COVID-19.
“The one that drives me the most crazy is that COVID is no big deal for teenagers,” he said. There have been about a thousand hospitalizations in that age group, “and a few deaths,” from COVID-19, as well as long-term effects from the virus in some cases.
The Utah Department of Health reports there have been less than five deaths from the virus among both Utahns less than a year old and those who are 1 to 14 years old, and eight deaths from COVID-19 among those 15 to 24 years old.
Just over 30% of Utahns ages 12-15 have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 22.5% are considered fully vaccinated, meaning it’s been two weeks or more since their final dose, according to the state health department. The numbers go up for Utahns age 12-18, with 38.5% having at least one dose, and nearly 31% fully vaccinated.
Pavia said Utah is ahead of most other states when it comes to vaccinating children and teenagers.
“It really good. It’s one of the only places we’re ahead of most states in COVID statistics. It shows the enthusiasm most parents have had for protecting their kids,” Pavia said. “But 38% is not nearly enough. We’ve got a long way to go.”
During a special session in May, the Utah Legislature banned requiring masks in classrooms in the upcoming school year, but Pavia said that shouldn’t stop parents, teachers and students from banding together “to do the right thing” especially for children too young to be vaccinated.
For Utahns under 12, learning from home may be the safest option, he said.
“If you really want to protect your kid absolutely from being infected, particularly if your child is at very high risk because of their heart or lung disease, or cancer,” Pavia said remote learning or home schooling “is probably the safe option.”
He said he’s “very worried” about the possible impact of the new school year on the state’s already surging case numbers. Utah’s COVID-19 outbreak recently ranked as the nation’s sixth-worst, driven by the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of the virus first detected in India and the state’s lagging vaccination rates.
Last fall, the new school year “drove a big surge through the community. Logic would say that’s what we’re facing and that’s what we’re worried about. We’ll just have to see,” Pavia said, calling it “a big lift” to boost vaccination rates by fall.
Duffy also said he’d like to see children wear face masks in school this fall, and expressed concern about how much time in the classroom many have already missed because of the virus.
“I just really need people to get vaccinated, honestly, because I don’t want to keep the kids out of school any longer. I think missing two years of schooling in person and the social aspect, I think will have effects down the road. I would just implore people to vaccinate so we can send kids to school safely.”