Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Just over 7% of Utah children under 5 years old have gotten at least their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Utah Department of Health and Human Services.
But Utah's rates for that age group are still higher than the United States as a whole.
Nationwide, only 6% of children under five years old have received at least one of the scaled-down doses of Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines for infants and toddlers that were finally authorized in June after a monthslong delay for children as young as 6 months old by federal health authorities, the Washington Post reported this week.
Yet COVID-19 vaccination rates are much higher in older children and teens — six times as high for children 5 to 11, at 38% nationwide, and nearly double that rate for those 12 to 17, at 70%, according to the Post. In Utah, the state reports similar numbers, with 37.4% of children 5 to 11 and 70.6% of those 12 to 18 having had a first shot.
Across the country, more than 4 in 10 parents — 43% — with children 6 months to 4 years old said they were "definitely not" going to get them vaccinated against the deadly virus, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in July.
"It's very disappointing that we have had such low uptake of the vaccine. It's a very safe and effective vaccine for kids," Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah and director of epidemiology at Primary Children's Hospital, told the Deseret News.
Rich Lakin, immunization director for the state health and human services department, said the numbers for young children were anticipated since interest in lining up for the shots has tended to decline in each new age group as they became eligible for the vaccine.
"We're doing pretty good. I'm happy with what we're seeing. I think people are understanding the importance. We expected it would be slower," Lakin said. "We're just following the trend, what we've seen with the older ages as you move really down the ladder."
Washington, D.C., has the highest percentage of children 6 months to 4 years old who've received at least one COVID-19 shot, about 21%, while Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi are at the bottom of the list, with less than 0.2 percent of that age group getting at least one dose of the vaccine, the Washington Post reported.
Lakin said as winter nears, the rate of COVID-19 vaccinations should jump for all age groups.
"I'm anticipating we'll probably see a higher increase when we get closer to wintertime, when we start to see cases probably increase," the immunization director said. "We usually see a trend with vaccination as compared with the severity of disease."
Pavia, who has talked about the frustrating wait for COVID-19 vaccines for infants and toddlers and that he sees getting them the shots as a "no-brainer" for parents, said one of the reasons more shots haven't been given is that the vaccine only became available at the start of the summer.
"That's not generally a time in which you bring your children in to the physician," he said. "That may have slowed it down a bit."
Added to that, the doctor said, "is a general perception that COVID is over, which as we all know is just unfortunately not true,"
As of the most recent update by the state last Thursday, Utah recorded nearly 2,500 new cases of COVID-19 along with a dozen additional deaths from the virus. Utah's death toll has now passed another grim milestone, with 5,001 lives lost, including seven among children and teens 1 to 14 years old.
The virus continues to pose other risks to children, too.
"Over the course of the summer, where people had thought COVID had gone away, we had a sustained high level of hospitalizations for children for COVID in Utah and around the country," Pavia said. "So it's not grabbing headlines, but it's still there."
He said it can be difficult for people to categorize the risk of COVID-19 to young children.
"If you compare it to the risk of severe disease in older adults, it doesn't look very bad. But if you compare it to other diseases which we worry about for our kids," he said, their risk is higher right now for COVID-19 than "for most of the other diseases that we happily vaccinate our children for."
At the same time, some parents may veer too far to the other extreme, thinking about childhood COVID-19 vaccines "as if it's to protect them against a huge threat that's going to kill thousands of children rather than just an important way to keep our kids healthy," Pavia said.
Nearly one-fifth of the parents in the July poll who said they wouldn't vaccinate their young children said their main concern is that they believe the vaccine, the first to use what's known as mRNA technology, is too new and there hasn't been enough testing or research, the most popular reason given.
The doctor said people haven't caught up to the fact that they're not considered new vaccines anymore.
"We've given now literally now close to half a billion doses of the mRNA vaccines so the safety record is now very good," Pavia said. "It was a very legitimate concern two years ago, that we didn't know very much about the long-term safety. But that perception should have changed."