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SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns with children under 18 are split over vaccinating them against COVID-19, according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll as federal approval nears for 5-to 11-year-olds to get the shots as soon as early November.
An advisory panel to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday recommended a pediatric dose of the Pfizer vaccine for children as young as 5. There are several more steps in the approval process, including by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, set to meet next week on the issue.
Vaccines are already available across the United States to anyone 12 and older, including the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson brands for those over 18 years old. The FDA panel was told that COVID-19 is one of the top 10 causes of death among children 5-11, with nearly 100 dying nationwide from the virus.
In Utah, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of two young people under 18 years old. In March, months before the vaccination age limit was lowered from 16, a Salt Lake County boy between 1 and 14 years old died from the virus and in September, the death of an unvaccinated girl believed to be 15 to 17 years old was reported.
Less than 48% of Utahns 12 to 15 years old are fully vaccinated against the deadly virus, meaning it's been two weeks or more since their final dose, while 55% of all Utahns, including more than 86% of those 65 and older who are considered the most vulnerable to COVID-19, can say the same.
The results of the new poll for the Deseret News and the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics suggest why.
Just over half the Utahns polled, 53%, said they did not have children under 18 when asked to describe their reactions to children and teenagers getting a COVID-19 vaccine as the parent or guardian of a child in that age group.
The rest were divided in their support of vaccinating children and teens, with 10% saying their children were already eligible for the shots and had gotten them, and another 12% planning to get their children vaccinated as soon as they became eligible.
But another 10% said they wanted to wait and see how the vaccine works before they'd get their children the shots, while 8% had determined their children would not receive a COVID-19 vaccine and 6% had not yet decided what to do.
Among the Utah parents who'd made up their minds not to vaccinate their children against COVID-19, most said their main reason was that they didn't believe the vaccine was necessary, 46%. Another 16% said they were worried about side effects, 11% don't trust vaccines, 3% objected for religious reasons and 24% had other reasons.
The poll was conducted Oct 14-21 by Dan Jones & Associates of 746 registered Utah voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.54 percentage points for the full sample. For the question asked only of parents who said they were not getting their children vaccinated, the margin of error is plus or minus 12.25 percentage points.
'Children can be impacted significantly' by COVID-19, doctor warns
Dr. Neal Davis, medical director of pediatric community-based care for Intermountain Healthcare, said he wasn't surprised by the results.
"I think that kind of squares with my experience in clinic, in talking with parents," Davis said. "I have a lot of families in my clinic that are very anxious to be able to get their kids vaccinated. So yes. Then there are some who are kind of that wait-and-see group, and then some who don't want to. Then we have a good conversation."
The Murray-based pediatrician said the two concerns parents most often bring up about the COVID-19 vaccine is whether it is needed since cases tend to be milder in children and if what they've heard about possible side effects is true.
COVID doesn't impact children and teenagers as much as it impacts adults, especially adults at risk. And it's also true that children can be impacted significantly. It's very important to protect them when we can.
–Dr. Neal Davis
While children typically aren't hit as hard as adults by the virus, he said he tries to make it clear they also can become seriously ill.
"COVID doesn't impact children and teenagers as much as it impacts adults, especially adults at risk. And it's also true that children can be impacted significantly. It's very important to protect them when we can. Those are not mutually exclusive statements," Davis said.
Parents are told the vaccine is needed, he said, because "we have had many children hospitalized in our state with COVID," and some suffer "really significant" after effects, including multi-symptom inflammatory syndrome or MIS-C, as well as lingering symptoms known as long COVID.
The doctor said he focuses on building trust with parents, by answering their questions about the vaccine.
"I think it's really important to listen to people and help them feel respected," Davis said. "Then I talk about their concerns and make sure I understand them. I present the data that I'm aware of and then I let them know that I respect their view. We will work together and always do what they want to do for their child."
Many come around, he said, although it can take time. If the vaccine is approved for children, Davis said his hope is that all of them can be protected by the shots, but he also wants "every parent to feel respected as they care for their child."
Parents may see risk differently for children
Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics, said parents appear to be "taking an extra measure of caution as they consider the COVID-19 vaccine for their children, compared to earlier polls that asked adults about taking the vaccine themselves."
Those polls found about two-thirds of Utah adults said they'd gotten the shots or wanted to right away, compared to about half of the parents in the new poll who had or intended to vaccinate their children or teenagers. Perry said the pandemic has been about weighing risks for Utahns, and those change when it comes to children.
"When it comes to making decisions for others, particularly their children, they have been more cautious," he said. "Although physicians and medical experts have been clear that there is little risk of harm for children getting the vaccine, the risk analysis has shifted for parents and more have decided to wait."
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, said it's understandable that people worry more about vaccinating their children than themselves.
"That's what we do as parents, is we worry a lot about our kids," Pavia said.
(In a state with mandatory masking in schools and a much higher vaccination rate than Utah), 'watching and waiting' before vaccinating children may be a reasonable strategy. Unfortunately, we don't live there. We have a lot of COVID spreading in our schools affecting kids in this age group.
–Dr. Andrew Pavia
In a state with mandatory masking in schools and a much higher vaccination rate than Utah, "watching and waiting" before vaccinating children may be a reasonable strategy," he said. "Unfortunately, we don't live there. We have a lot of COVID spreading in our schools affecting kids in this age group."
That means parents should balance what's not known yet about the vaccine, Pavia said, after studies that included some 3,200 children. None showed any serious side effects, including myocarditis. an inflammation of the heart muscle that affected some adolescent and young adult males.
"We don't know everything there is to know about this vaccine yet. We know enough to know that it's safe and effective. We are going to learn more," Pavia said, such as whether children will eventually need booster shots that are now being given to many adults.
What still has to happen before children can get COVID-19 shots
With approximately 365,000 Utah children between the ages of 5-11, they would be one of the largest newly eligible groups since vaccinations against the COVID-19 virus began last December, according to the Utah Department of Health.
The state health department said Tuesday that 109,000 pediatric doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been pre-ordered from the federal government and should begin shipping at the end of this week. But the department said the doses cannot be administered until federal regulators give final approval, likely next week.
The pediatric doses would be able to be administered by the same providers who offer adult COVID-19 shots, including local health departments, pharmacies and doctor's offices. Vaccine providers can be found on the state's coronavirus website, coronavirus.utah.gov/vaccine-distribution.
The FDA advisory panel recommendation is for giving children 5 to 11 one-third of the dose offered to those 12 and older in two shots, three weeks apart. About 28 million children around the country would be eligible for the shots under the recommendation.
It next goes to the agency's acting director, Dr. Janet Woodcock, then her decision is reviewed by a CDC advisory panel that is scheduled to meet Nov. 2 and 3, and finally, the CDC's director, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky. Walensky will issue the final guidance for vaccinating children.