Health Care

Young children’s Covid-19 vaccinations lag behind other age groups

Note: This story is more than a week old. Given how quickly the Covid-19 pandemic is evolving, we recommend that you read our latest coverage here.

Finn, 2 of Jericho, gets a high five after receiving his first vaccine at a walk-in Covid-19 clinic in Waterbury on Thursday, June 23. Only 13% of kids under age 5 in Vermont have gotten at least one dose of the Covid vaccine. State officials think the lag stems from parents taking their time to get around to the doctor’s office. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Six weeks into Vermont’s Covid-19 vaccine campaign for children under 5, new data from the state Department of Health shows that parents have not exactly flocked to get their young children vaccinated compared to other age groups.

Vaccinations for children under 5 began in Vermont on June 22. Since then, about 13% of children in that age group have started the vaccination process, according to data issued by the health department for the first time on Wednesday.

By comparison, health department data shows that six weeks after 5- to 11-year-olds became eligible for the vaccine in early November, about 46% had gotten at least one dose. 

The campaign for young children is the first that followed major changes in how the state runs its vaccine distribution program. The Agency of Human Services closed down its vaccine appointment portal in the spring, although state-run walk-in clinics are still listed on the health department website. The state instead has focused on encouraging parents to take children to their regular pediatricians to get the vaccine. 

Over 60% of vaccinations in the under-5 age group have gone through each child’s regular medical provider, according to Ben Truman, a spokesperson for the health department.

Pharmacies also offer Covid vaccines to some young children, but availability varies by age and by drugstore chain.

Ahead of the approval of the Covid vaccine for children under 5, Dr. Leah Costello, a pediatrician in South Burlington, told VTDigger that many parents may feel more comfortable if young children get the vaccine at their “medical home,” the doctor who sees them regularly.

“Vaccinations are what pediatricians do best,” she said in June. “This is our job. This is what we do all the time.”

But that reliance on pediatricians may also play a role in why this age group is proceeding more slowly than others. In early July, a few weeks into the campaign, Health Commissioner Mark Levine told VTDigger that he expected many parents “won’t be rushing their kids in.”

“They have their appointments already,” he said, referring to routine “well visits” for young children. “And that demographic sees pediatricians so frequently. They'll have those conversations, and I'm sure we'll get a much higher rate” in the next few months.

Truman said via email that the Vermont rate was higher than the national average of around 2 to 3% for under-5 vaccinations. He said the department doesn’t see the rate as “lagging.”

“Nothing could be farther from the truth,” he wrote. “We are pleased with the rates thus far, and appreciate the thoughtful consideration parents and caregivers are giving to the importance of vaccination as the most effective way to protect their children from serious illness or, worse, from the Covid virus.”

He also attributed the slow uptake to Covid’s “endemic state of risk and spread” compared to the prior state of emergency. The health department rated Covid levels in Vermont as “low” on Wednesday, although they have reached their highest point nationally since February due to the BA.5 subvariant.

At a national level, research suggests that vaccine hesitancy may be a factor in the low rate of uptake of the vaccine. In a national survey released this week, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 43% of parents would “definitely” not get their children under 5 vaccinated, and another 27% wanted to “wait and see” following the early stages of the rollout.

Vermont has tended to have low rates of vaccine hesitancy, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the state has maintained one of the highest rates of adult vaccination in the country. But the Kaiser survey found that even some parents who were vaccinated themselves were less likely to say they wanted to get their child vaccinated.

Vermont pediatricians and physicians agree that children over the age of six months should get vaccinated, said Rebecca Bell, president of the Vermont chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, via email. She said that while children recently infected with Covid can wait, they should get the vaccine no more than three months after testing positive.

“Although vaccinated children and adults may still become infected with Covid-19, the vaccine continues to offer protection against serious disease,” she said.

The pediatrics organization is hosting a series of town halls to answer Vermonters’ questions about the vaccine. The first was held July 11; others are scheduled for Aug. 8 and Aug. 10 via Zoom.

Bell also wrote that parents should feel comfortable going to their children’s doctor with their concerns. “Your child’s health care professional is the best resource for questions about your child and the vaccine,” she wrote.

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Erin Petenko

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