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Perspective: Why have so few children been vaccinated for COVID-19?

More than a month after vaccines were approved for children 6 months and older, vaccination rates show low trust in health officials

SHARE Perspective: Why have so few children been vaccinated for COVID-19?

Alex Cochran, Deseret News

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a press release in the wake of the emergency approval of COVID-19 vaccines for young children.

The public health agency said: “Parents and caregivers can now get their children 6 months through 5 years of age vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines to better protect them from COVID-19. All children, including children who have already had COVID-19, should get vaccinated.”

And the American public responded — by not vaccinating their young children. This shows not only their skepticism of the need for the vaccine in those least likely to get sick, but also their lack of trust in the CDC writ large.

On July 7, CNN reported just 300,000 American children received the vaccine, a significant drop in uptake from the last time the vaccine was approved for children.

“In the three weeks following the authorization of vaccines for the 5-to-11 age group, 15% of that population had received at least one shot, compared with 2% of the 6-months-to-5-years group,” according to CNN.

Those numbers are now slightly higher, in the 3% range, a full month after the vaccine first became available to this age group. 

Kawsar Talaat, a vaccine expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told Politico about the low demand for the under-5s vaccine: “The distrust in government, the distrust in public health and the distrust in science is growing and is very, very worrisome.”

Indeed, it is.

Appearing on “Fox & Friends,” Dr. Marty Makary, also of Johns Hopkins, was even more on point: “Parents are not falling for it. After nearly a month of the government heavily pushing vaccines for kids under 5, only 3% have chosen to get their kids under 5 vaccinated. More parents believe in UFOs, I think.” 

And why aren’t they, in the words of Makary, “falling for it?”

Makary, writing with Dr. Tracy Beth Hoeg, argued that public health officials are facing a mess of their own creation, writing, “The trouble is that this sweeping recommendation was based on extremely weak, inconclusive data provided by Pfizer and Moderna.”

In the company’s research, Pfizer found no statistically significant evidence of vaccine efficacy in three doses administered to 992 children between the ages of 6 months and five years, Makary and Hoeg wrote.

Further, in a subgroup of children from 6 months to 2 years old, the trial found that “the vaccine could result in a 99% lower chance of infection — but that they also could have a 370% increased chance of being infected,” they wrote. “In other words, Pfizer reported a range of vaccine efficacy so wide that no conclusion could be inferred.”

They went on: “No reputable medical journal would accept such sloppy and incomplete results with such a small sample size. More to the point, these results should have given pause to those who are in charge of public health.”

In the piece, Makary and Hoeg outlined their private conversations with those working in public health about the collapse of their trust in the institutions they themselves work for. Americans’ trust in all institutions has been declining for years, but the vaccination rates for children should be especially alarming in view of this.

If Americans trusted public health officials, we’d see more than 2%-3% of parents following their recommendations on COVID-19 vaccination for children 5 and younger, and more than a third of American parents fully vaccinating their 5-to-11-year-olds. 

The shockwaves of what that loss of trust will do to public health will reverberate long after the immediate concern over COVID-19 is past. The next time there is a widespread pandemic, we need the American people to have total faith in our public health authorities. That lack of trust has terrifying implications if we’re faced with an outbreak with a disease as deadly — or more so — than COVID-19 has been.

There should also be concerns when it comes to routine childhood vaccines. 

When parents are weighing the current regime of vaccinations or when a new one is introduced, they need to have faith in public health officials. Barring that, our vaccination levels will decline, and the potential future outbreak might be for a disease we already have a vaccine for, such as polio

In this first month following the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine for children 5 and under, we should be seeing a reckoning among those in public health. Anything less may provide the Biden administration political cover, but that’s it. Much more is at stake here than Biden’s poll numbers.

If public health authorities care more about their mission than politics, they’ll take these numbers as a wake-up call instead of marshaling their public relations response.

Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for Deseret News. She is a home-schooling mother of five and a widely published writer on politics, culture and Judaism. She is an editor for the children’s book series “Heroes of Liberty.”