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Kids and COVID-19: Is the Vaccine Safe?

Published on Sep. 10, 2023

You may be hearing that kids are “hardly impacted” by COVID-19. But the data suggests a different story. Since the start of the pandemic, approximately 6.2 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, accounting for about 16 percent of total cases (Source: CDC). Here in northern Michigan, COVID-19 cases are on the rise in children, including severe cases requiring hospitalization and sometimes an admission to ICU.

Moreover, other COVID-induced complications like multisystem inflammatory syndrome among children (MIS-C) can cause significant illness and long-term issues.

Some parents may balk at these numbers, arguing that the risk of severe infection and hospitalizations are still comparatively low. But the risk remains, not only to children but also to higher-risk community members around them.

Also unclear are the long-term effects for children who contract COVID-19. That’s why tools like the vaccine and continued masking are critical for eligible kids. But are the vaccines safe for our kids? Five pediatricians answer your most common questions below.

Why does COVID-19 seem to be affecting more kids now than before?

Jacques Burgess, MD, Pediatric Hospitalist – Munson Medical Center: First, we have improved our ability to test patients for COVID-19, including kids. We also simply know more as the pandemic has evolved – including how COVID-19 affects children. For example, there are symptoms that appear to be more specific to kids, including simple respiratory changes like fever and cough. Conversely, it’s also pretty common for kids to have COVID-19 but show no symptoms (aka asymptomatic).

Finally, the Delta variant is more contagious. At the same time, many people have grown lax about wearing masks and practicing physical distancing. And we still have many unvaccinated people in our region. This is a recipe for increased spread and infection, especially among those who cannot yet be vaccinated – like many of our younger children.

How is COVID-19 impacting kids here in our region?

Christine Nefcy, MD, FAAP – Chief Medical Officer, Munson Healthcare: We have seen a steady increase of both pediatric admissions and ICU admissions across the state. Our critical care units and intensive care units both here in northern Michigan as well as across the state are full with patients. Additionally, the impact of our children’s schooling due to quarantines from exposure at school is disruptive to both their academic and social development. Masking in school can help, but vaccination of those children would be even more effective and long-lasting.

What do we know about COVID-19’s long-term effects on children? Should parents be concerned?

Statson Vandegrift, MD, Pediatrician, Grayling Community Health Center: We are still learning about the long-term effects of COVID-19 in children, but so far we are seeing problems with the lungs, heart, and brain. Cough and shortness of breath may last for weeks to months after infection, and some problems caused by COVID-19 – such as blood clots and strokes – can cause permanent damage.

Studies have shown inflammation of the heart in 60% of patients with COVID-19, even if their illness was not very severe. Long-haul COVID is a term to define symptoms that persist months after infection with COVID-19, which can include fever, headache, cough, difficulty breathing or decreased endurance, body aches, changes in taste or smell, belly pain, and trouble concentrating.

MIS-C is a rare complication of COVID-19 that happens a few weeks after infection and involves multiple organ systems.

There is not yet data on children hospitalized with common childhood illnesses such as RSV happening alongside COVID-19; however, with easing of masking and social distancing recommendations, we are seeing a surge of RSV and other common childhood illnesses that are typical for this time of year. Though the season for respiratory illness is still early in our country, other countries have noted more severe courses of infection.

Jennifer Kuiper, MD, Board-Certified Pediatrician – Frankfort Medical Group: We also know that if you are a student athlete and you’ve had significant COVID (where you’ve been hospitalized, etc.), your ability to return to sports is really different. It often involves a cardiology evaluation because of the risk of COVID-19’s impact on the heart.

Dr. Burgess: Another impact we’re really concerned about is Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C). MIS-C is a serious and infrequent condition that may follow COVID-19 infection even if a child was asymptomatic with the initial virus.

Parents and caregivers should watch for fever, abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, or rash in their children. Please seek prompt medical attention with a primary care team, urgent care, or emergency department based on the severity of symptoms and level of concern.

Is the vaccine safe for kids?

Dr. Burgess: The FDA has approved a vaccine for children ages 12 and up. As a community, we should expect a safe, efficacious, and readily available option for our younger children. The current hesitation and reluctance to provide younger children with the vaccine is based on insufficient information. Our FDA is moving swiftly and carefully to ensure vaccine safety at younger ages. Trials are ongoing and we expect to see results very soon.

Dr. Vandegrift: Yes – the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in particular has been studied in children 5 and older and has been found to be safe and effective in this age group. The other vaccines are still being studied for kids. People who are vaccinated are less likely to catch COVID-19, and those few that do are less likely to have a severe disease course.

I commonly hear concerns that since the vaccines are new and came out quickly, they must be less safe. The COVID-19 vaccines passed the same series of trials that are required for all vaccines and medications. Millions of vaccines have been given, and though we continue to collect data, there have been no long-term health effects from receiving the vaccine.

What about more immediate vaccine side effects? What can parents expect to see? Why do these side effects happen - and for how long?

Stephanie Galdes, DO, Board-Certified Pediatrician at Kids Creek Children’s Clinic in Traverse City: We can expect to see similar effects that adults and kids ages 16 and up experienced: Low-grade fever, soreness at the injection site, and sometimes muscle aches, and nausea. We have observed that some of those side effects can be worse after the second dose. However, this is just a signal that the immune system is responding – and it’s time-limited, so we don’t expect these symptoms to last more than 24 hours. To think about it broadly, the majority of these kids have received other vaccines throughout their lifetimes, and we see some of the same side effects with our regularly scheduled vaccines.

Dr. Vandegrift: Very rarely, children can also have temporary inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) following vaccination, although this happens much more often in children who are infected with COVID-19 than in children who receive the vaccine. Allergic reaction to the vaccine is rare – it’s also a risk for any vaccination.

As a pediatrician, do you plan to vaccinate your own children?

Dr. Galdes: It's so exciting that we have this vaccine for ages 5 to 19-year-olds! This vaccine is what's going to get us out of this pandemic. It’s been a tough year for parents and especially for our kids, and the fact that we can start to vaccinate and get our kids back to a more normal life is huge. I highly recommend COVID-19 vaccination if your kids fall in the eligible age category. Two of my kids are now eligible to get the vaccine and I hope to have them vaccinated the first week it is available.

Overall, children fare pretty well when sick with COVID-19 infections, but some do not. Knowing my children will be vaccinated gives me a huge sense of relief; they will be protected from getting sick and hospitalized, they will be protected from spreading COVID to vulnerable family members, they will not need to be quarantined if exposed at school, and they will be a huge part of ending this worldwide pandemic!

Dr. Kuiper: Yes, I do. We have vaccinated our kids who are 14 and 17 already – and our 11-year-old will get the vaccine as soon as it’s in the office. I feel like this is a way to protect her from getting COVID. Who wouldn’t want to prevent their child from feeling yucky for a few weeks? I’m also concerned about her possibly developing long-term COVID impacts like cardiomyopathy or excessive fatigue.

Furthermore, as a physician I’m very aware that our pediatric ICUs are filling up around the state. In northern Michigan, we have a very high rate of transmission right now, and I want to keep her as safe as possible and avoid hospitalization. I know that she can still potentially get COVID, but it won’t be as severe if she gets the vaccine.

Finally, I want her to be one less person who can transmit COVID-19 to others. And she really wants it. She wrote on her summer wish list to get ice cream, go swimming, play with cousins – and get her COVID vaccine.

Dr. Vandegrift: My daughter is not old enough to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, but if she were, I would have her vaccinated without hesitation. The risk of severe disease or long-term complications from COVID-19 outweighs the risk of temporary vaccine side effects. I would rather have her protected. As soon as there is a vaccine available for her age group, I will have her vaccinated.

What Can Parents Do to Alleviate These Side Effects?

Dr. Galdes: I would advise parents to avoid pre-treating kids before any vaccine with Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen because there's been some evidence that you might not get as much of an immune response. But after the vaccine, you can certainly administer either of these after the vaccine to help alleviate any uncomfortable symptoms or fever.

My child is terrified of needles. Any tips?

Dr. Kuiper: When it comes to vaccines, distraction is powerful. Don’t hesitate to play a favorite video or music on your smartphone. You can also use non-candy rewards; I give stickers to all of my patients for bravery as an example. You might also arrange a fun activity post-visit.

As kids grow older and into elementary age, you can start teaching them how getting vaccinated can help others. School-aged kids like the idea of helping other people – not just themselves.

Dr. Vandegrift: Many children are apprehensive about vaccines. Practicing the doctor’s visit prior to your appointment can be helpful so your child can develop a frame of reference for what to expect. I also recommend being honest about the injection. “It will pinch for a moment and then it will be over” tends to work better than “it won’t hurt a bit.” This builds trust and sets you up well for next time. During the visit, distraction can be a powerful tool. Consider bringing along a comforting toy or a special treat.

What advice do you have for parents who are on the fence about the COVID-19 vaccine for children?

Dr. Vandegrift: Consider risk versus benefit. The vaccines have been well studied and around long enough that we are confident about their safety and effectiveness. COVID-19 has also been around long enough for us to understand the complications that can come from having COVID-19 – including problems with the heart, lungs, and brain. Vaccination reduces both the likelihood that your child will be infected and the severity of disease if your child is infected. Especially with school back in session, I strongly recommend vaccination to protect your child from COVID-19.

If parents still aren’t quite comfortable just yet or their younger children aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine, what are some things they can do to keep their kids safe from COVID-19?

Dr. Galdes: Parents want to continue masking their children and keeping them six feet away from others. It's hard right now because a lot of adults are vaccinated, but many of our kids are not. Just because we’re vaccinated doesn’t mean that we can pull our kids safely into situations like crowded indoor playdates, grocery store trips, or classroom settings if not masked. If you have that pod where they’re in the same classroom and they’re not exposed to a lot of others, then we can think critically about socializing within the same pod – but generally, our kids are still at risk for infection.

Playdates outside are great because it’s easier for kids to stay at least six feet apart. And don’t forget the importance of handwashing!

Dr. Kuiper: The best thing for parents who are wondering “What should I do?” is to sit down with their pediatrician or their family doctor physician – wherever they get care for their child – and talk to them. We can address their questions and concerns.

Another thing to consider is school. If your child is fully vaccinated and exposed to someone who is COVID positive, he or she can just be tested versus being pulled from school. The more children who are vaccinated also lessens the likelihood of shutting down an entire class or grade due to COVID-positivity.

COVID cases are not just in the grandma and grandpa older population. This is everyone. It’s about protecting your whole family. If everyone in the family is vaccinated, the chances of someone in that home ending up in the hospital due to COVID-19 decreases significantly.

Nearby Vaccine Locations for Kids

Looking for a close-to-home COVID-19 vaccine for your child? Call your pediatrician, family doctor, or local health department to learn when the vaccine will be available.

Questions? Ask a Nurse!

Do you still have questions about the COVID-19 vaccine for your child – or anyone in your family? Or maybe you need a pediatrician? A Munson Healthcare nurse is standing by and ready to help. Call Ask-A-Nurse anytime daily between 7 am – 11 pm to speak with a registered nurse. This service is FREE and no insurance is required.

Ask-A-Nurse   231-935-0951

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