Many Utahns “have been sold a bill of goods” about the impact of COVID-19 on children, believing they can’t be hurt by the virus, a pediatric infectious diseases doctor at the region’s largest healthcare provider said Friday, shortly before the federal authorization of a coronavirus vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds was announced.

“Children are really suffering from COVID-19,” Dr. Andrew 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 in Salt Lake City, said during a virtual news conference.

Pavia said the highly contagious delta variant of the virus that sparked a spike in cases in Utah and the rest of the country starting last summer has infected 23,000 children in Utah since August, including more than 10,000 who are 5 to 11 years old and soon will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

“That represents more than the entire school year last year,” he said, adding that “it’s really important as we get closer and closer to having the vaccine out for people to understand that children 5 to 10 can get really sick with COVID. And even if they don’t get really sick, their lives can be disrupted.”

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But that’s not what parents may be hearing as they consider vaccinating their children, Pavia suggested, calling it “a real crime that it’s been politicized, that there has been this spread of misinformation. Because it has made it very difficult for people to really understand the risks and the benefits of the vaccine.”

He said with any medicine there is some risk, but when it comes to the lower dose of Pfizer vaccine that could receive final approval from the federal government next week, “they are dwarfed by the benefits of getting the vaccine.”

That means children should get the shots as soon as possible, Pavia said. COVID-19 vaccines are currently available free of charge to anyone 12 and older, including the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson brands for those at least 18 years old.

The Food and Drug Administration signed off Friday on an emergency use authorization for the lower-dose Pfizer vaccine in children as young as 5 years old. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is set to meet next week to determine the details of how the vaccine should be used in children 5-11 years old.

Catching COVID-19 puts children at risk for hospitalization or serious long-term effects, the doctor said, even if their symptoms are mild. Primary Children’s Hospital is seeing 8 to 10 young COVID-19 patients a day, a number that’s jumped since school started, Pavia said, with as many as half needing intensive care.

Those heartbreaks, he said, can be prevented by protecting children from the deadly virus through vaccinating them against COVID-19 as soon as they become eligible as well as continuing masking and other preventive measures.

Not getting children the shots is “rolling the dice” that they may be struck by a rare but severe outcome, Pavia said.

The effects that can come after a bout with COVID-19 include multisystem inflammatory syndrome or MIS-C, a serious disease affecting the heart or other organs that can cause high fevers, severe abdominal pain, breathing difficulties and blue lips and fingertips.

Children who develop the syndrome spend a week on average in the hospital, although some have been in the intensive care unit for weeks, Pavia said, and a small proportion of children hospitalized after getting COVID-19 end up with organ damage that lingers.

Of the 120 or so children hospitalized with MISC-C at Primary Children’s Hospital, he said only a third knew they’d had COVID-19. The others never showed symptoms of the virus and were not tested for it until being admitted with the syndrome.

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What’s known as “long COVID-19” — symptoms that persist including neurological and cognitive issues, shortness of breath, fatigue and pain — is also an issue for some Utah children, the doctor said. He has said the best estimate is that 1 in 10 children will end up with long COVID-19.

“You don’t know if your child gets COVID-19 and they have a mild case whether or not they’re going to have lingering symptoms. From a child’s point of view, those lingering symptoms may be worse,” Pavia said, leaving them too tired to play or keep up in school.

“That may not seem as severe as an older adult dying or going to an ICU, but as a pediatrician and a parent, I can tell you that is a devastating outcome,” the doctor said. “We have tools to avoid it.”

A vaccination clinic dubbed The Shot Spot at Primary Children’s Hospital now giving flu shots to children and their family members is set to add both pediatric and regular doses of COVID-19 vaccine on Nov. 8, Pavia said, adding the virus vaccine should initially be available at larger practices and pharmacies throughout the state.

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