‘It will allow for middle and high schools to reopen safely and address the concerns of teachers and administrators,’ says UCLA Health’s Dr. Alice Kuo.
Get a shot, go to prom. Gain immunity, go to graduation.
Adolescents 12 to 15, who became eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in May, are finding many reasons to get vaccinated, according to Alice Kuo, MD, PhD, chief of Medicine-Pediatrics at UCLA Health.
“This is just going to give children in that age group a lot more freedom and put a lot of adult minds at ease,” Dr. Kuo said. “It will allow for middle and high schools to reopen safely and address the concerns of teachers and administrators.”
For parents who have questions or feel uneasy, Dr. Kuo offers reassurance that the vaccine is extremely safe and effective for adolescents. She also emphasizes that anyone able to be vaccinated can help protect others who are still vulnerable.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, nearly 4 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 300 have died. Rarely, they may develop Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, or MIS-C, a condition that affects multiple organs.
“Children do get COVID-19 and they do transmit, although at a lower rate than adults,” said Dr. Kuo, a professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and of health policy and management in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “From data in L.A. County, youth transmission of COVID-19 happens through sports activities and other gatherings where masks or other mitigation strategies are not being used.”
Dr. Kuo has worked at several school-based COVID-19 vaccination clinics since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded access to the Pfizer vaccine for children 12 and older, starting May 13. Teens 16 and 17 already were eligible for the Pfizer vaccine.
“The demand is promising,” she said. “For example, in Manhattan Beach the district sent a link to the middle school parents and within a few hours over 800 kids were signed up. I think many families are eager and view the vaccine as a way to end the pandemic and to protect either their child or members of the family from COVID-19.”
Dr. Kuo said the most common concern she hears from parents is about the vaccine’s potential effect on still maturing bodies.
“Many parents have concerns about growth, puberty, fertility,” Dr. Kuo said. “They may have read things on social media, but there is no evidence to support the notion that the COVID-19 vaccine would affect fertility at all.”
Dr. Kuo noted that during COVID-19 vaccine trials in adults, women got pregnant without incident.
“The COVID-19 vaccine uses mRNA technology that helps your body produce antibodies specific to COVID-19,” Dr. Kuo said. “It targets the immune system.”
Dr. Kuo said she expects concern over fertility to fade over time, once the vaccine becomes routine for all age groups.
In some cases, Dr. Kuo said, children are prodding their parents to let them get vaccinated.
“In some vaccine-hesitant communities, I think children are the ones bringing their parents in,” she said. “Students are being very practical: It’s easier for me to be vaccinated so I can go to prom, so I don’t have to wear a mask, so I can go to a sporting event. Sometimes, the parents are the ones who are more hesitant.”
She said demand in Black and Latino communities has not been as high. Large vaccine events where people stand in line, she said, can be a barrier.
“In the hardest-hit communities, many parents are essential workers and can’t leave work for a few hours to get their vaccine,” Dr. Kuo said. “In these communities we need a different strategy in which all of the obstacles to getting a vaccine are removed, like smaller vaccine clinics at a local church or supermarket.”
For children under 12, who are not yet eligible for the vaccine, Dr. Kuo said playdates and summer outings are still possible as long as community transmission remains low and people are mindful of public health guidelines.
“We are so fortunate to live in a climate where we have great weather year-round,” she said. “The more activities that can happen outdoors, the less risk of COVID-19 transmission.”
Dr. Kuo said reported side effects from COVID-19 vaccines for children are the same as for adults, and she explains to families that symptoms such as fatigue and muscle aches indicate the immune system is working.
In her experience, teens have done quite well.
“I think children are more resilient,” she said. “Reports of side effects have been minimal. Mainly it’s been a sore arm and that’s it.”
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Courtney Perkes is the author of this article.