After getting a COVID-19 shot at school earlier this week, 7-year-old Etta Bastian has some advice for other Utah children.

“I would tell them that they should get the shot and they should really be brave about it,” Etta, a first grader at Hillsdale Elementary School in West Valley City, said. Although she admitted being nervous beforehand, “it just felt like a little pinch on my arm.”

While Etta said she doesn’t talk much about COVID-19, she said she worries “about people getting sick and dying.”

The shot is worth it to feel protected against the virus and help others, she said.

“I knew I was going to be safer for a while,” Etta said, and able to do what she has missed most during the pandemic, to “get in an airplane and travel to see my family.” Now, Etta is looking forward to a Christmas trip to see her mother’s relatives in Houston, after unexpectedly losing her father earlier this year to a non-COVID-19 illness.

“It was a very easy decision,” Cortney Bastian said of getting Etta vaccinated. “She’s a brave little girl and she wanted to do her part. We both felt like it was the right thing to do. We have confidence enough in science to know this is something more beneficial than harmful.”

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave final approval for children 5 to 11 years old to be vaccinated against COVID-19 with two pediatric doses of Pfizer vaccine three weeks apart, nearly 5% of Utahns in that age group already had received the first of two shots, two weeks before Thanksgiving, according to the Utah Department of Health.

What Utah parents need to know about vaccinating children as young as 5 against COVID-19

While the smaller doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine — they’re one-third the dose given to those 12 and older — were available in some places in Utah last week, the shots are continuing to roll out to local health departments, pharmacies and doctors’ offices.

Utah’s numbers look good so far to 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.

“It is a really great start. In just one week, with still fairly limited places where people can get their kids vaccinated, we’ve vaccinated 17,000 children or almost 5% of the eligible kids,” Pavia said, calling it “great news that the vaccine is being embraced enthusiastically.”

But it came as coronavirus cases in young children hit record levels.

There are now an average of nearly 59 cases a day for every 100,000 Utah children 5 to 10 years old, based on a seven-day rolling average calculated by the state health department. That’s compared to a rolling seven-day average of 56.6 cases a day per 100,000 children that age at the peak of the pandemic last winter.

School-age children accounted for about one-fifth of the state’s 1,531 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, including 172 who are 5 to 10 years olds. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 600 Utahns 14 or younger have been hospitalized with COVID-19, and two young people from Salt Lake County have died.

“We thought we would never see anything worse,” Pavia said, than the “darkest days of last January.”

Younger children are being hit “much, much harder” by the delta variant of the virus because it’s so easily transmitted, the doctor said, and colder weather means they’re spending more time indoors. An even bigger factor, Pavia said, is that Utah schools no longer require masks.

“Most of the blame, I think, has to be laid at the fact that we did an excellent job last year at making schools safe with masking and distancing and testing. And we have abandoned most of those practices in many but not all of our schools,” he said, after the Utah Legislature made it difficult for such mandates to be imposed.

More children being hospitalized with COVID-19, Utah doctor says, as vaccine is authorized for ages 5-11
Josephine Snow gives Abbie Whipple a COVID-19 vaccination.
Josephine Snow, a Salt Lake County Health Department community health worker and temporary vaccinator, gives Abbie Whipple, 10, a COVID-19 vaccination at Hillsdale Elementary School in West Valley City on Monday, Nov. 8, 2021. Whipple is a fifth grader at Eastwood Elementary School. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

‘I felt like it was pretty cool’

Jennifer Whipple, who teaches first grade at Eastwood Elementary School in Salt Lake City, said it was important to her as both a parent and an educator to get her daughters, Abbie, 10, and Norah, 6, vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as possible.

“As a teacher, I felt it was important for me to have my kids get it so that they have a level of protection when they were at school,” Whipple said, as well as helping to ensure they don’t unknowingly spread the virus to their teachers and classmates.

“Kids are carriers and don’t always know it. I feel like having them vaccinated kind of helps slow the spread,” she said, since children can be more likely to have the virus without showing symptoms. “It’s hard for their parents to keep them at home if they don’t know that they’re sick.”

Getting the shots gives her peace of mind about her own children being at school, Whipple said.

“My children have worn their masks, even though there’s not a mask mandate,” she said. “I feel a little bit more at ease to say, ‘OK, once you’re fully vaccinated we can lighten up a little bit. They can feel a little more comfortable and less worried about all of that stuff. I feel like the less worried they have to be about these things, the more they can enjoy life.”

Two days after getting their shots at another area elementary school that offered vaccinations sooner than Eastwood, both Abbie and Norah said they felt fine after having sore arms where they got the shot. Norah, her mother said, is like most children her age who doesn’t like getting any shots.

“I think I felt, I don’t know, like kind of happy that I got it because again, it’s not very much fun having to wear masks,” Abbie said. “But I also did it to be a better influence on my little sister, and also to protect my dad,” who recently had surgery.

Getting the vaccine “makes you feel safer, knowing that there’s less chance that you could get really sick and have to go to a hospital,” the 10-year-old said. “I was pretty excited to get it, but I still had that one like gut feeling, like is there going to be any side effects. But after I got it, I felt pretty good.”

The shot also seemed like a grown-up thing, she said.

“Knowing like almost every other grown-up has it that wants to get it. ... I felt like it was pretty cool I could be included in that,” Abbie said, adding that most of her friends are also getting vaccinated and looking forward to when they can “hang out more without masks and stuff like that.”

“Now is the time”

It takes two weeks after the second pediatric dose for children to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, so starting the shots now means they can be fully protected before Christmas, Pavia said. Even a first dose can provide children some protection for Thanksgiving, Pavia said, advising parents not to wait.

“A lot of people say, ‘I don’t want to go first. I want to see how it goes,’ which is a very understandable feeling. I think now, with a million children vaccinated in the U.S., you’re not going to be the first,” he said. “With the benefits of getting your family protected by Christmas, now is the time to go ahead.”

Doctors feel confident recommending the vaccine because of the success of the clinical trials, where no serious side effects were reported. The smaller dose for children should improve the safety of the shots, Pavia said, although it remains to be seen if there are any side effects, expected to occur “at a rate of about one in a million.”

For the most part, the doctor said children are tolerating the vaccine better than teenagers and young adults, experiencing fewer fever, chills, muscle aches and headaches, likely due to receiving a smaller dose. Sore arms, however, are common, he said, and tiredness, chills and fever will happen to some.

Mountain West states make up nation’s largest COVID-19 hot spot

Jesus Rubio, of West Valley City, said he and his wife, Velia, were initially hesitant about vaccinating Derek, 10, and Delilah, 6, but roused them off the couch Saturday to get them to a vaccination clinic. Rubio said what changed their minds was his wife’s experience with COVID-19 patients as a critical care technician in a hospital intensive care unit.

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“She saw everything going on, people passing away. She was like, ‘I don’t want that to happen to us,’” Rubio said. He said they explained to their children, “You don’t want to get your grandma and grandpa sick, do you?” Their answer was no but “at first they were kind of scared.”

But both children got the shots after their father dismissed the misinformation about the vaccines they’d picked up on social media. Derek had a mild headache and Delilah, a sore arm after being vaccinated, but both were fine the next day, Rubio said.

“They got on board. They’re just better off. We don’t have to worry about them being sick or getting somebody else sick,” he said. The children will continue to wear masks at school and in crowds, Rubio said, but hopefully change by the end of the year.

“I know it’s a hassle for them, but they’re understanding it now. They see the outcome of being vaccinated,” Rubio said, adding he’d like to see more Utahns making the same choice. “Let’s get this thing rolling. The more people that get it, the better off we are.”

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