Will Cleveland parents give their young kids the COVID-19 shot?

Children as young as 5 can now receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, but questions remains about whether parents will get their young kids vaccinated. Doctors say other childhood immunizations rarely get the same kind of pushback. Meanwhile, UH and Cleveland Clinic will start giving the shots to kids this week. [A3pfamily / Shutterstock]
Children as young as 5 can now receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, but questions remains about whether parents will get their young kids vaccinated. Doctors say other childhood immunizations rarely get the same kind of pushback. Meanwhile, UH and Cleveland Clinic will start giving the shots to kids this week. [A3pfamily / Shutterstock]
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Cleveland-area hospitals will offer COVID-19 vaccines to kids as early as Thursday, now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have approved its use in kids 5 to 11.

The question remains, however, if most parents will be interested in having their young kids vaccinated.

Ideastream Public Media’s Anna Huntsman checked in with doctors to see how COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy is influencing how people are viewing vaccines for kids and other vaccines for adults, like the flu shot, and spoke with All Things Considered host Tony Ganzer.

So this dosage for younger kids is of the Pfizer vaccine. First, can you tell us when and where this will be available in our area?

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital and Cleveland Clinic officials tell me parents can call right now and make an appointment for as early as Thursday. CVS Pharmacy is scheduling appointments as soon as this coming Sunday at 40 locations in Ohio. Appointments may be limited for this first batch, hospital officials said, but they will receive more shipments of the vaccines soon. The COVID vaccines will also be offered during regularly scheduled well-child visits, they said.

State health officials also announced Wednesday that health providers across the state, including pediatricians, family doctors, community health centers, hospitals, and pharmacies, are receiving shipments and will be scheduling appointments or accepting walk-ins.

Just because the vaccine is available doesn't mean parents are on board. Is there any general sense from doctors of how hesitant parents might be? 

Dr. Kevin Turner, a pediatrician at UH, said while some parents are eager to sign their kids up for the COVID-19 vaccination, others are hesitant or not interested at all. Another interesting point is parents sign off on a slew of childhood immunizations almost every year with little to no pushback, but they feel differently about the COVID vaccine, he said.

“I have not seen a significant change in parents’ reluctance to get immunizations, the regular immunizations. But when you ask them about COVID shots, frequently, they will just comment, ‘nope, I don't want it,” Turner said. “I will get no questions or no concerns about some of the vaccines that are, you know, more routine. I think our country is now, with particularly related to COVID … the pandemic, the virus, the vaccine, people are very divided on it.”

There are a few reasons for the hesitancy – the most common is that parents perceive the COVID vaccine as being new, he said.

But the COVID vaccine has been given to thousands of children in clinical trials and was found to be safe and effective, Turner said.

“I think from my standpoint, personally, although it's difficult for me to understand exactly where they're coming from, it's important just to be respectful of that,” he said. “Have there been times when I have had discussions with family members or close colleagues and a level of frustration and concern? Absolutely.”

In general, he added, parents are more reluctant toward vaccines they did not receive as kids, like the HPV vaccine, which prevents cervical cancer. That vaccine came out about 15 years ago and uptake was low at first but has gradually risen over the years, he said.

It's not just parents of course who may show hesitancy. We've seen many people holding out and not getting a COVID vaccine now, nearly two years into the pandemic. How might this be affecting attitudes toward other vaccines like, say, the flu shot? 

The doctors I spoke with said it’s a bit too early to tell what this year’s flu shot uptake is compared to other years.

But, I also talked to Broadview Heights resident Devin Cathcart, who got his flu shot recently after never receiving it in years past. Cathcart said he didn’t get sick very often and thought he didn’t really need it.

But learning about the COVID-19 vaccine this past year changed his mind, he said.

“I always thought of the flu shot as just, kind of, a big nothing. Like it was for old people. But then my understanding of, sort of, the COVID vaccine, just that, you know, you're a member of a community and your vaccine status affects other people … So it's not necessarily for me, it's for my 93-year-old neighbor,” he said.

Cathcart plans to get flu shots every year from now on, and that’s a direct result of the pandemic and rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines, he said.

“It’s a paradigm shift. The way that I look at a vaccine is different now. It's less personal and more community health, more holistic,” Cathcart said.

On the other hand, the COVID-19 vaccine may have had the exact opposite effect on other people.

So far, uptake of the flu shot among staff at Cleveland Clinic's Union Hospital, which is south of Canton in Dover, is lower than in years past, said Dr. Cody Turner.

“I can tell you, but kind of anecdotally … we have seen that that people have definitely been slower getting the influenza vaccine this year,” Dr. Turner said. “At Union Hospital, we were somewhere just around 50 percent, and that's a vaccination that's required as part of your employment with the Cleveland Clinic. And that's, you know, that's been a challenge, definitely this year. It's always a little bit of a challenge, but not quite to the degree that we're seeing it now.

The hospital’s employee COVID-19 vaccination rate is about the same, with between 50 to 60 percent of their caregivers vaccinated, he said. That is lower than the percentage of vaccinated staff across all Cleveland Clinic locations in Northeast Ohio, which is upwards of 70 percent, he added.

People have many reasons for their attitudes toward vaccines but it seems like there's a difference in a relatively new vaccine against COVID and then the flu shot that's been around for years. What's behind this blanket hesitancy? 

The polarizing climate around vaccine mandates and misinformation being spread on social media about vaccines, in general, could be driving the hesitancy, Turner said.

When it comes to the patient population, there’s been a huge shift during the pandemic with people distrusting the health care system and vaccines as a whole, he said.

“The common thing that we're seeing across the Cleveland Clinic health system is that people are questioning vaccines more than they really have in a long time,” Turner said. “People think that doctors are lying to them, and they think that, you know, that we're part of a conspiracy theory. A lot of people think that we're making up coronavirus now, and it's just, it's very disheartening, as somebody who's dedicated their life to taking care of patients.”

More concrete data about this year’s flu vaccination numbers will be available in the coming weeks, officials said.

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