Adults snapped up COVID-19 shots in the first wave of vaccinations in early 2021, coveting them so much that Florida police nabbed two women who dressed as “grannies” to hop the line.
The federal push to vaccinate children has been a much tougher slog, with parental anecdotes and federal data showing interest drops off below age 12 even as President Biden cheers the recent authorization of shots for 18 million kids aged 6 months to 4 years.
Ginny Merrifield, the executive director of the Parent Association, a nonprofit that advocates for parents of kids in public schools, said just half of the parents in her California circle were interested in vaccinating children 12 and older when those shots became available.
Another 20% or so came forward to make life easier as their teens participated in sports or other activities where immunization was demanded or expected.
“When you start getting younger than 12, I think those numbers start shifting in the other direction,” Ms. Merrifield said in an interview. “I think there is a dramatic decrease as you go down with age.”
The trend is reflected in federal and state data. Over three-quarters of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that as of June 28, nearly 60% of the 25.3 million U.S. residents aged 12 to 17 were fully vaccinated. By contrast, less than 30% of the 28.7 million U.S. residents ages 5 to 11 were fully vaccinated.
It is a vast gulf in percentages, even though the 5-11 group is slightly larger and started getting shots five months later than the 12-17 group.
In New York State, roughly 72% of residents ages 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated, a similar share as the 18-25 age group (75%) and 35-44 group (78%). But only 37% of those aged 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated in the Empire State.
Coverage also varies across the country.
“The numbers are not good. Only 30% of parents are vaccinating their 5- to 11-year-olds and that number is down to only 11% in many southern states,” said Peter Hotez, an infectious diseases expert at the Baylor College of Medicine. “Likely the percentage of those younger than 5 years old will be even lower, in which case we’re looking at single digits numbers for the South.”
The slippage in younger groups underscores the challenge the White House faces in getting widespread vaccine coverage — a marquee initiative for Mr. Biden, who is trying to reduce severe outcomes as the country attempts to live with the virus.
Ms. Merrifield said parents are concerned about the relatively small trial sizes used to authorize the pediatric vaccines and the relatively short time the shots, which use pioneering technology known as mRNA, have been under review.
She also said parents see a difference between COVID-19 vaccines, which can stave off severe disease but not infection outright, and pediatric shots for things like measles, which are expected to box out the disease completely.
“Childhood vaccines prevent infection, period,” Ms. Merrifield said. “So to suggest the COVID vaccine is equivalent to the rest of the vaccines that are mandated for schools, in particular, is a non sequitur — they are totally different.”
The biggest impediment to interest among young groups is the perception that COVID-19 isn’t a threat to young kids, who’ve accounted for 0.1% of U.S. deaths from the virus.
However, federal officials say 400 children 4 and younger have died from the disease and tens of thousands have been hospitalized. There is also the threat of persistent symptoms, known as long COVID, or multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children who get sick — a pair of threats that might convince parents to bring their kids forward.
“You put all that together, and parents begin rethinking it,” said William Schaffner, an infectious diseases specialist at Vanderbilt University.
The CDC is still collecting data on the first days of the rollout for the youngest group, from 6 months to 4 years, before publishing it on its dashboard.
State officials said it will be difficult to measure how the newest rollout stacks up against previous campaigns.
There isn’t a surge in cases right now, but the delta variant was still a concern when the age 5-11 vaccines were authorized for emergency use last October, spurring some interest in protection. Also, there were more providers ready to deliver the shots in the 5 and older group. Most pharmacies don’t vaccinate below age 3 or so unless they are sites like CVS MinuteClinics, which vaccinate down to 18 months.
Doctors widely expect an initial burst of interest among parents of young children, followed by a lull in which pediatricians discuss the shots are part of routine visits.
“Among a small group of parents, there is a great deal of interest. But it falls off pretty much after that,” Dr. Schaffner said. “I think it will be folded into routine care. I think it may well be the provider —nurse, doctor — is going to have to bring it up and answer questions.”
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has acknowledged that parents of younger children are extra cautious and need to hear reassurance from multiple sources.
“Sometimes they want to have not one but two or three conversations with somebody they trust,” Mr. Murthy said this month on the cusp of FDA authorization for ages 6 months to 4 years. “We’re going to keep working on this. And again, our goal is to make sure that every parent out there of a child under five has the information they need to get their child vaccinated.”