By Sylvester Brown Jr.
At one of the most fragile times in American history, Dr. Jason G. Newland, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with Washington University and Children’s Hospital, has a positive outlook about the future of children.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is also concerned. Last month the agency reported a dramatic spike in 2022 COVID-19 cases among children.
“I think our kids and our teenagers are going to be able to see beyond the political strife in our country. They will have a sense of community strength and will want to help people a lot more than older generations,” Newland said, referring to children impacted by the novel coronavirus.
“This is going to stick with them enough where they are going to support one another more in the future. They’re going to show love and kindness like we’ve never seen before.”
Newland’s forecast was an offshoot of a question many parents are asking. They are aware that Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to President Biden and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the United States is “out of the full-blown, explosive pandemic phase.”
Many parents are wondering if it’s still necessary to have their young children vaccinated.
“Yes, it is still necessary,” Newland vehemently said.
“Thankfully, deaths and cases have gone down but just like with influenza, if we look at what happened and what could happen, we will see new cases, continued death; we will see complications with young children where they can get this multi-system inflammatory syndrome. All these things can be pretty much prevented by getting vaccinated.”
There’s no doubt that the nation is in a much better place than it was during the past two years. Two-thirds of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated. People who’ve already had COVID have built up some type of immunity to it. And, according to recent CDC data, nearly six in 10 adults and three in four children carry antibodies to the coronavirus.
Still, Newland maintains, even with victories in the fight against the coronavirus, now is not the time to forego concerns about vaccinating very young children.
“We know that children less than five will be around grandparents, those in that high-risk group. These little ones didn’t seem to get it as easily, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, but, man, they’ll sure give it to you,” he said.
“Without having them vaccinated, you increase the risk for them and especially other people getting infected.”
Another reason Newland encourages vaccinating children under five is related to the unknown of the ever-mutating virus. A recent report from Johns Hopkins Medicine noted that coronavirus variants, including the highly contagious omicron variant, continue to spread. Cases are highest in areas with low rates of vaccinations and among populations such as children under 5 who cannot yet be vaccinated.
“The more people that can be potentially protected, the less likely you’ll have variants come out and you can prevent other infections,” Newland said.
“So, in the end, if you can get vaccinations down to six months (of age) that will help tremendously.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics is also concerned. Last month the agency reported a dramatic spike in 2022 COVID-19 cases among children. For the week ending April 21, the academy noted over 37,000 additional child COVID-19 cases, marking the second consecutive weekly increase in child added cases.
A vaccine for kids younger than 5 may be available soon through the pharmaceutical company Moderna. It is expecting emergency authorization for the only population that still can’t get even their first shot. The FDA’s panel of vaccine experts are expected to make a final decision after its June meetings.
Newland feels vaccines for very young kids will be approved, after an arduous process.
“The best news we’ve heard so far is that the FDA’s external advisory committee is meeting,” Newland explained.
“That gives us a sense of what will happen. They will meet, look at all the data and most likely approve it. Then it goes to the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. They will probably recommend it. So, maybe around the second week in June, we’ll likely have it where kids 6 months to five years of age can get vaccinated.”
In the meantime, Newland has been trying his best to address the concerns of parents, he said, who fit within several distinct categories.
“There are aboutthree groups,” Newland said.
“Those in group one are all in. They know the science; they trust the science and know vaccines will help their kids live easier.
“Group two are the ones who are not getting vaccinated…period. They don’t understand the science, don’t trust it, and don’t want it. Some might even be in that camp that don’t believe COVID is even real.
“Then there’s the group that just isn’t sure, and they’re scared. Some may even be vaccinated but aren’t sure about vaccinating their kids. They may have a loved one telling them they’re crazy to do it and another telling them they should do it. They just don’t know where to go. This is the group, however, where we might be able to convince people.”
Revisiting his theory about the positive impact COVID will have on future generation’s attitudes, Newland doesn’t think that will happen by coincidence. He recommends vaccinating children early to help them avoid what he called “the consequences of the pandemic.”
“There’s been educational loss [and] mental health problems that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Kids have lost staggering numbers of their loved ones. Their lives have been changed forever,” he said.
The jury is still out on the long-term effects of COVID-19 on adults and children. Although the virus has not had the most severe impact on very young kids as with adults, Newland believes the best route for better future outcomes means taking the safest route.
“Thankfully, children have been less impacted, but that could change on a dime and it’s clear that you’re way better protected if you’re vaccinated as opposed to being unvaccinated.”
Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.