Why these families are jumping at the chance to get their kids vaccinated against Covid-19
Courtesy Alicia Zhou

Why these families are jumping at the chance to get their kids vaccinated against Covid-19

When 8-year-old Nate Wittenborn saw a photo of Pfizer’s pediatric Covid-19 vaccine, he jumped up and down.

“I showed him the picture, and he read the box, and I think his eyes went straight to the 5- to 11-year-old (label),” his mom Brandy Wittenborn said.

“He said, ‘Wait — wait, that’s for us?’ We said ‘yes, it is.’ And he’s like, ‘You mean, we’re going to get the shot soon?’ I said ‘yes, you will.’ So he’s very excited.”

Across the country, many parents and even children are celebrating the news that kids ages 5 to 11 can now get vaccinated against Covid-19.

For Nate and his 11-year-old brother, the vaccine means sleepovers and a long-delayed vacation to Disneyland.

For a family in South Carolina, the shots mean a 10-year-old cancer survivor can finally go back to school after 17 months at home.

And to a family in California, the child vaccine is critical to help prevent new variants and end this pandemic for everyone.

Indiana parents want to protect the vulnerable patients they work with

Brandy Wittenborn didn’t initially think she would ever need to vaccinate her three sons — Derek, now 11; Nate, now 8; and Will, now 4.

“When they were developing this vaccine, I honestly thought that we wouldn’t have to vaccinate our kids that are maybe under 10, if they weren’t affected as much, and weren’t a part of as much of the spread of the virus,” said the dental hygienist from Carmel, Indiana.

“But as we rolled out the vaccine for adults, and you saw so much vaccine hesitancy, it kind of occurred to me: If we are going to reach any kind of herd immunity, it’s going to have to involve the under-10 crowd … and that was really before we started seeing some of these variants that affected kids a little bit more,” Wittenborn said.

“So when they started studying the vaccine in the 12-and-up crowd, the mRNA science seems extremely safe when compared to some of the other vaccines that we’ve had developed in history. I couldn’t really see that the risks were going to be any more for that younger crowd than for adults.”

Wittenborn dug deep into the research and paid close attention to why advisers to the US Food and Drug Administration recommended the vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds.

“I listened to the whole FDA advisory meeting last week,” she said. “I myself am a dental hygienist. My husband is a nephrologist — a kidney specialist. We have a large handful of physician friends around the area that we’ve listened to. … When you see that over and over and over again, with trusted pediatricians, you think, well, this is what they’re doing with their own child. So this is what we should do with ours.”

She said it’s especially important to vaccinate her sons because of the vulnerable people both parents work with.

“I work at a pediatric dental office. I have a lot of kids that have underlying medical conditions. A lot of special needs patients that can’t wear a mask. My husband, being a nephrologist, has patients with kidney disease, patients that require dialysis. And these patients that he sees are not healthy, have several underlying conditions,” Wittenborn said.

“So we’ve had to live with almost two years of: What if one of the kids brings Covid home from school, passes it along to my husband and I, even though he and I’ve been vaccinated for a while, if we do have a mild breakthrough case that we don’t realize we’re sick with, and he takes it into the dialysis center, into the hospital, or into the ICU?”

“So for us, the benefit of getting those boys vaccinated kind of cuts down on the risk of us carrying that infection to somebody that would have more severe disease than one of us would.”

She did ask the family’s pediatrician about myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that has appeared occasionally in younger men after a second dose of Covid-19 vaccine.

She learned that post-vaccine myocarditis is rare, and those who do get it often have mild, treatable cases — unlike some who get severe myocarditis due to Covid-19.

“I have talked to our pediatrician … if you have a myocarditis incident after a viral infection, those can be fatal, lead to hospitalizations, more severe disease,” Wittenborn said, matching what other pediatricians have said.

She said her 8- and 11-year-old sons are excited to get vaccinated.

“To them, it means that they may not have to wear a mask indoors anymore. Neither of the boys have ever had sleepovers with their friends. This will make sleepovers easier to have. The boys will know that their grandparents will be a little safer being around them more frequently, or maybe they’ll go be able to go spend some time staying with their grandparents more.”

And soon, the family will finally get to go to Disneyland.

“We had a Disneyland vacation booked for April of 2020 that we had to cancel because of the pandemic,” Wittenborn said. “They are definitely excited.”

A young cancer survivor wants to go back to school

Jodie Srutek’s 10-year-old daughter hasn’t been inside a classroom in 1 1/2 years.

She’s a cancer survivor who’s at high risk for severe Covid-19 if she gets infected, Srutek said. But her school doesn’t require masks, and the risk of going to school unvaccinated is too high, said the mom from Bluffton, South Carolina.

“As soon as we can get the vaccine, we will get it,” Srutek said shortly before her daughter became eligible Tuesday. “Even if it means we have to drive two hours away to get it … we will do that if we have to.”

But she’s already discovered problems with access. Her pediatrician’s office said it didn’t have a freezer cold enough to store the Pfizer vaccine, which must be kept at a colder temperature than the Moderna vaccine used for adults in the area, Srutek said.

She learned a local superstore was planning to give pediatric Covid-19 vaccines. But a crowded store would be unsafe for Srutek’s 10-year-old, who did not want to be named for this story.

Even though the girl’s kidney cancer is in remission, “she still has residual health effects from her treatment,” Srutek said.

While some parents have expressed concern about possible long-term side effects after vaccination, “we’re definitely more concerned about long-term effects of Covid,” Srutek said.

“I don’t know of any vaccines that have long-term effects for most folks — it’s usually pretty quick if there’s an adverse reaction,” Srutek said, echoing what doctors have said about the unlikelihood of long-term vaccine side effects.

To her daughter, the vaccine is “a ticket back to normal” — including birthday parties and a return to in-person learning for the first time since March 2020.

“I want to get it so much so I can go to school and see my friends!” the 10-year-old said.

“I’ll be able to go to the park even if there are a lot of other people there. And I’ll be able to go to Disney World and Universal again.”

Vaccinating kids will help prevent new variants, a scientist and mom says

Alicia Zhou didn’t just read reports about Covid-19 vaccines. She insisted on reviewing all the primary data before vaccinating her 6-year-old son, Davi.

“I didn’t just take anybody’s word for it,” said Zhou, the chief science officer at Color, a company specializing in public health infrastructure.

“I looked at the clinical trial evidence and I evaluated it. And honestly, it’s some of the most impressive data … that I’ve seen when it comes to vaccination,” the molecular biologist said.

“I could see how if you’re just reading it from a press release, or you’re just reading from a news article, you might feel like it’s exaggerated or might be a rosy version of the truth. But having gone to the primary data myself, it’s very, very compelling.”

So as a scientist and as a mother, “it feels like a no-brainer to have my child be vaccinated.”

While children are generally at lower risk of severe illness from Covid-19, pediatricians say they can still be at risk of long-term complications — regardless of how minor their initial symptoms may have been.

Covid-19 has also killed more than 790 children ages 0 to 17 and sent more than 65,000 to hospitals.

While the odds of severe Covid-19 among kids may seem low, Zhou said she doesn’t want to take the chance.

“If I give you a bag of 1,000 M&Ms, and said only one of them will kill you, would you let your kid eat one?”

But Davi’s vaccine won’t just benefit himself, his mom said.

“When we think about: Why is the pandemic dragging on? Where are these new variants coming from? And how is that causing us to have a prolongment of this pandemic? The reality is that the virus evolves and changes and adapts,” Zhou said.

“And as long as you continue to have pools of unvaccinated and susceptible individuals, it is giving more opportunity for the virus to continue to replicate and evolve and change. And so our best protection against more novel variants developing that could become even more advantageous than even Delta is to increase the amount of vaccination within the population or immunity within the population — either by getting Covid-19 or by being vaccinated.”

An Ohio family knows how rough Covid-19 can be

Even before a vaccine was available to 11-year-old Ava Mittendorf, her mom Jennifer had already booked an appointment.

Ava and both her parents came down with Covid-19 in the summer of 2020, before vaccines were publicly available to anyone.

“My husband started with it. And then I got it, and my youngest daughter got it. And for her, her symptoms were relatively mild,” said the mom from Plain City, Ohio.

“But there was this strange tremor that appeared. Her whole right side, her arm and hand shook. And I never would have attributed that to Covid.”

A pediatrician referred the family to a neurologist, and “he said, ‘You know, you can never prove these things. But … the onset of it, and the way that it’s acting, it was likely a virally induced tremor.’ And as she shed the virus, as he predicted, those tremors went away — but not for 12 weeks,” Jennifer said.

Her husband Andy was “really, really sick” during his bout of Covid-19.

And the possibility of Covid-19 reinfection is real — especially for those unvaccinated.

Unvaccinated people who previously had Covid-19 were more than twice as likely to get reinfected as previously infected people who got vaccinated, according to a report on Kentucky residents published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I think for us, we just wanted some degree of normalcy back and wanted to be able to take that into our own hands,” Jennifer Mittendorf said. “So we had no hesitation about getting vaccinated.”

Her older daughter, 14-year-old Abby, got vaccinated the first day she became eligible. Ava, 11, has an appointment to get her first shot next week.

“They both have been very pro-vaccination,” Jennifer said. “They want to be able to play sports. They want to be able to be out. And they don’t want to get sick.”

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